Trump cuts to food assistance violate sovereignty of Native American Nations

By Christy Chapman, Native American Budget and Policy Institute and Tim Davis, New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty

No one should go without access to food in the United States. However, in the middle of a global pandemic when thousands of people are losing their jobs everyday, the Trump administration continues to pursue cuts to food assistance for more than 27,255 New Mexicans and 755,000 low-income adults nationwide by limiting unemployed adults to just three months of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food assistance in a three year period.  

There are 23 sovereign nations in the territorial boundaries of New Mexico whose communities will be harmed by this rule. Yet, the federal government failed to consult these sovereign nations, or any others, on the proposed rule that would disproportionately impact Native communities and disrespects the sovereignty of Native governments. 

The Native American Budget and Policy Institute and New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty argue in an amicus brief that as a result the rule is illegal and should be blocked. 

Federal law has long limited SNAP for unemployed adults without children. However, states have flexibility to request waivers for areas with high unemployment and, if unemployment was high state-wide, the whole state could be waived from the time limit. The new rule would limit this flexibility and make it more difficult to obtain waivers for areas of high unemployment including sovereign Native American nations.  

The rule would disproportionately impact several Native American communities, where historically, the unemployment rate can be greater than 50%. In small and rural communities, the only job opportunities may be in the education, health, or government sector. 

The Trump administration ignored written comments against the rule documenting the significant harm it would cause American Indian/Alaskan Native communities. This violates the trust responsibility between the federal government and Native American Nations created by treaties when these Nations ceded large portions of their aboriginal lands to the United States in return for the right to self-government with reserved lands. 

The colonial land seizures restricted access to food, income and agriculture caused widespread food insecurity that persists today. Historic and ongoing systemic inequalities cause many Native American communities to be without the infrastructure and economic development opportunities for adequate employment for all its members. 

A federal court has temporarily stopped the rule and could permanently block it. Congress should also stop the rule and has already suspended its implementation during the public health emergency. 

Pueblos, Tribes, and Nations are in the best position to determine public policy within their territorial boundaries and for their members. In this time of racial reckoning and as the COVID-19 crisis exposes long standing systemic inequalities in New Mexico, the federal government must fulfill its trust responsibility and fully recognize the sovereignty of Native American nations. Under no circumstances should the federal government take food assistance away from people who can’t find work.

Human Services Department withdraws new hurdles to food assistance – for now…

Last week, the Human Services Department withdrew proposed changes to work requirements for food assistance, conceding that the Department could not legally implement the new rules.

This about-face was a direct result of our lawsuit challenging the illegal process that the state used to implement the new requirements. The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the Southwest Organizing Project, along with New Mexicans in need of food assistance, filed this suit on October 31st. Our case outlined how the Department failed to follow proper procedure when it did not make the full proposal available for public review. Additionally, the information that was released contained inaccurate descriptions of the rule changes and contradictory statements about how a person can fulfill the requirements, making it impossible for New Mexicans to comply.

A Santa Fe District Court judge found merit with the concerns we voiced and issued a temporary restraining order, meaning that the proposed changes would not go into effect until a full hearing could be held. Just hours before that hearing, Department attorneys advised the Center and SWOP that the state was withdrawing the proposal. On the same day, we learned that Human Services Department Secretary Sidonie Squier had resigned.

We believe the Human Services Department intends to reissue the new regulations, which include imposing harsh penalties on those who cannot meet the requirements: adults who do not understand and follow the rules could lose access to food assistance for the next 3 years, and other families could lose benefits for up to one year, devastating punishments for those struggling to eke out a living. We will continue to watch for these policy changes in order to defend this vital safety net.