Up to 37,000 New Mexicans will lose food aid under stricter mandates approved Wednesday by the Trump administration, the governor’s office reported. Nearly 700,000 people will be affected across the U.S.
Currently, New Mexico waives work requirements statewide for able-bodied adults without children, but under the finalized rule change it will have less flexibility to do so going forward. Without that waiver, adults ages 18 to 49 can not receive SNAP benefits for more than three months in a three year period unless they work at least 20 hours a week or participate in a job training program. The number of recipients varies by month, but the state Human Services Department said 37,164 were eligible in October 2019.
The change is likely to trim $5.5 billion from the federal food stamp program across the country over five years.
The average monthly food stamp benefit in New Mexico was $121 in 2017.
Wednesday’s rule change drew protests from the governor’s office, U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-Albuquerque, and the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.
“In a state like New Mexico, this rule will devastate families who can least afford it; this rule is designed to effectively deny people food benefits by instituting punitive work requirements that may be unattainable,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement.
The changes, wrapped into one of three rules the Trump administration wants to alter after failing to get them passed in the 2019 Food Bill, will take effect April 1, 2020. Two other rule changes are still being considered but are expected to win approval. One would end a rule that allows some families with incomes up to 200 percent of the poverty level to get food stamps. A third would adjust eligibility formulas, affecting one in five struggling families. These two changes would kick children who qualify through current rules off the Free and Reduced Lunch program.
Paul Gessing, president of the conservative Rio Grande Foundation, argued in a May blog that record low unemployment in New Mexico meant it was time to end the waivers, and that federal resources should instead be targeted at childhood hunger. The foundation filed comments in support of the changes in March.
“We believe that able-bodied adults without children should get a job or get training,” Gessing said Wednesday. “Sitting at home without any productive work or schooling is not helping anyone. Work isn’t just about putting food on the table. It is about dignity and self-worth.”
Sovereign Hager, a lawyer with the Center on Law and Poverty, said that while New Mexico as a whole has seen a large drop in unemployment, there are many areas where unemployment is more than twice the U.S. unemployment rate of 3.6%. Luna County in southern New Mexico had an unemployment rate of 8.3% in October, with Cibola, Catron and McKinley counties having rates higher than 6%. The Center also predicted negative economic fallout across New Mexico, saying in a statement the cutting off of thousands of recipients could affect the more than a 1,500 grocers and local food retailers who participate in the program.
“What this is really about, to us, and even Congress, is that in the richest country in the world, no one should be hungry. And these types of rules are based on this myth that folks who aren’t working, or folks who need help with groceries, are lazy and choose not to work.”
Gessing agreed that the economic recovery has not happened evenly across the state, but said that should prompt working-age adults to go to where the jobs are.
“The last thing we want is for government welfare programs to encourage people in economically depressed areas to remain there when they would be better off moving,” he said in an email.
Hager said there are ways the state can mitigate the pain of the rules changes. It can expand training programs for those who will lose benefits because they aren’t working. Right now the state has a tiny, voluntary training program for SNAP beneficiaries. It expects to serve only seven people per month in 2020, according to the annual plan filed by the state Human Services Department. The state can also help people affected by the rules changes to qualify for individual hardship exemptions such as disability or lack of transportation.
The Center sued in 2014 to stop the administration of then-Gov. Susana Martinez from enforcing work requirements. Hager said a study done for that case found many of the people labeled able bodied adults in New Mexico were veterans, experiencing homelessness or had mental or physical disabilities.
“We know what works in terms of helping people: good paying jobs that make ends meet, a higher minimum wage, affordable child care, affordable housing,” Hager said. “Policies that penalize people because of unemployment or underemployment do nothing to help.”