Non-Profits Sue To Block New Mexico Governor From Kicking 80,000 People Off Food Stamps


New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R)

Non-profit groups in New Mexico are suing to stop Gov. Susana Martinez (R) from reinstating work requirements that could boot 80,000 people off of food stamps in the state.

New Mexico is one of eight states that plans to implement work requirements for food stamps in the coming fiscal year despite being one of 37 states to qualify for a statewide, yearlong waiver from the work rules for fiscal year 2015. Waiver eligibility indicates that a state continues to experience high enough unemployment and weak enough economic growth to trigger exceptions from federal rules intended to prevent able-bodied adults without dependent children from receiving food stamps for longer than three months unless they work 20 hours a week.

Because requiring people to work doesn’t guarantee there will be jobs for them to do, food stamps laws are designed to soften work rules when economic conditions warrant it. Even when the 20-hour weekly requirement is suspended, food stamps recipients must adhere to a separate set of rules such as registering with state hiring databases, not quitting an existing job without good cause, and accepting any offer of employment of at least 30 hours per week.

Several other states have received partial waivers of the work requirement rules, covering only certain areas or lasting for less than the full fiscal year. New Mexico, Ohio, Texas, Maine, Indiana, Wisconsin, Delaware, and Colorado have partially or totally rescinded their waivers despite being eligible. Kansas revoked its waiver a year ago while still eligible to receive one, but it would not be eligible for a waiver for 2015.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) was also sued over his decision to revoke food stamps work waivers for a select set of counties in his state. The groups suing Kasich say that his selective application of work requirement for food assistance is a civil rights violation because he opted to reinstate work requirements in the counties that are home to the bulk of Ohio’s minority population while continuing to waive them in places where most food stamps recipients are white. That suit is still pending.

Details are comparatively scarce on the New Mexico lawsuit filed Monday, but reports indicate that groups there are making a very different sort of argument from the Ohio suit. The New Mexico lawsuit alleges that the state failed to provide enough detailed information about the decision and its ramifications prior to declining the waiver and that it failed to notify the public that a hearing on the matter had been moved, the Albuquerque Journal reports. A spokesman for the state called those procedural objections “baseless” and said that it is time for Great Recession-era waivers to expire.

New Mexico has the highest unemployment rate (6.7 percent) of any of the eight states currently declining waivers for which they are eligible. There are roughly 2.1 unemployed people for every available job in the western region of the country, according to federal data which does not drill all the way down to the state level. Nearly 2.4 million active job-seekers are competing for 1.1 million jobs out west, with millions more jobless people going uncounted in the statistics because they aren’t looking hard enough to qualify as unemployed.

Work requirements make the safety net less flexible, leaving programs less able to adapt to changing economic conditions. While the work rules added to the welfare system in the 1990s have drawn praise from both political parties over the years, the recession exposed their flaws. Child poverty skyrocketed in the wake of the financial collapse and the broader meltdown it brought on, as inflexible work requirements prevented taxpayer-funded programs to alleviate economic hardship from keeping up with the increased demand for their services.

The past two years have seen a number of efforts to curtail food stamps specifically, with Republicans pushing for huge funding cuts and Democrats agreeing to smaller cuts that could still strip $90 per month out of the food budgets of some of the country’s poorest people. Congress passed those cuts even though the program was already shrinking on its own thanks to the gradual economic recovery.

Conservative safety net opponents say that food charities will pick up the government’s slack, but those same charities have been warning that they are over-extended even before the recent food stamp cuts. A recent survey by the nation’s largest network of food charities warned that one in six such organizations nationwide is on the brink of closing its doors due to a lack of resources and staggeringly high demand.

That report also detailed some of the extreme measures that households dealing with “food insecurity” take to avoid going completely hungry. About 56 percent of families surveyed said they eat expired food, and more than a third reported pawning property to fill their pantries.