Kimberly Jones knows just how hard it is to wait for emergency food stamps to come through. New Mexico is supposed to grant people in dire financial situations expedited benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) within seven days, rather than the 30 it takes to process regular applications. But it often doesn’t work out that way.
At the end of last year, Jones, who was living in a hotel room because she couldn’t afford an apartment, applied for emergency benefits. But months passed without any word from the state’s Human Services Department (HSD), which oversees SNAP.
Forced to decide between spending her meager income from her part-time job caring for a home-bound patient on either food or the hotel room, she spent it on the room, knowing that she needed somewhere to keep her belongings. So while she waited for help buying food, she managed to get by by visiting soup kitchens and picking up boxes of food from local churches. Things were so tough that she had her five-year-old stay with a family member.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do, I was at my wit’s end, about to start break down crying,” she said. “I said, ‘Oh Lord, I need some help.’”
She says that help came in the form of Louise Pocock, a staff attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, who helped her spend an hour on the phone with the department clearing up her case and getting the benefits finally pushed through. Jones now receives $75 a month in food benefits, is living in her own apartment, and has her youngest child with her.
I said, ‘Oh Lord, I need some help
But thanks to alleged fraud running rampant in the department, thousands of New Mexico residents may have been cheated out of the same benefits. According to the new allegations, food stamp administrators tampered with applications to disqualify people from the program.
The state has long had trouble complying with regulations meant to get food stamps to people quickly and efficiently, particularly the one ensuring that emergency benefits go through within seven days. In the 1990s, New Mexico entered into a court-ordered consent decree as part of a settlement of a class action lawsuit over its inability to follow the rules and process applications for both food and medical assistance correctly and on time. Decades later, it has yet to get out from under the order by proving it’s made the adequate improvements to comply with federal law.
But now even worse charges are being levied against the department. Nine former and current HSD employees have testified that if the department hadn’t met the required seven-day deadline to process an application, they were told to give the case file to a supervisor. When the files were handed back to them, they say, the data on the application had been altered. Assets were added and the applicant no longer qualified for the emergency benefits.
The practice, which testimony suggested has been going on at least since 2003, then allows the department to take the longer, non-emergency timeline of 30 days to process the application. That way, the delay doesn’t count against its efforts to comply with regulations. But if the allegations are true, they constitute fraud. The department did not respond to a request for comment.
It also likely means that many people aren’t getting benefits at all. “Theoretically, if a person does everything and the department does everything right, that person will get their SNAP,” even if it comes 30 days later, Pocock said.
But her group knows that the department already has a long history of not doing things the right way. “If you couple [the allegations] with all of the application processing problems that we have documented in our case in terms of not calling people for interviews, not sending out adequate notices… It’s another barrier to people getting their benefits altogether.”
They’re lying about their incompetence
And as Jones’ experience shows, that extra barrier is particularly problematic for people who are seeking emergency benefits. They are the ones most in need of immediate help and who have the least to fall back on if they get denied or delayed for months on end.
“A lot of those people who are eligible for expedited SNAP are super vulnerable populations. They don’t have access to funds, they don’t have access to resources, they can’t get to the office, they can’t do paperwork,” Pocock said. “That same day processing [of expedited benefits] really helps people alleviate those barriers and overcome them and get the benefits they need.”
The Center on Law and Poverty was already in the midst of going after HSD over its continuing failures to comply with the consent decree. At the end of 2013, it discovered a huge backlog of applications and filed several court motions, including one on the improper delays and denials of benefits. It spent two years working closely with the department, only to end up “exacerbated” with the level of progress, as Pocock put it. So the group filed a motion to put the department under a receiver who would come in and put things in order.
But now the situation looks even worse than it did before. Data already showed that the department wasn’t processing things quickly enough, but even that data may be flawed if officials are fudging the numbers. “What little improvements we thought the data was showing — we can’t really rely on that,” Pocock said. “Before, our argument was really incompetence. With this new evidence…they’re lying about their incompetence.”
At a recent hearing, high-level HSD officials invoked their Fifth Amendment rights and refused to answer 97 questions about the allegations, including whether they ordered employees to change application data, retaliated against the workers who refused or are now speaking out, or lied to the court in previous hearings. The department has been given 60 days to complete its internal investigation and must file its findings with the court on June 28, after which there will be two more days of hearings and hopefully a final decision as to whether to put the department under receivership.
For her part, Jones is doing much better than before. She’s been living in her own apartment for two months and has added an extra client, which means she can afford her rent. But she still struggles. The day she spoke to ThinkProgress, she had just been at a church to get a box of free food, despite the food stamps she gets every month.
And the time she spent waiting for those small benefits to come through stayed with her. “My experience was not a good experience,” she said.