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Half in NM don’t meet welfare work rules

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Only about half the families receiving government cash assistance in New Mexico meet federally mandated work requirements.

Still, the compliance rate is much higher than it is nationally for those enrolled in the program known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, known here as New Mexico Works.

The work compliance rate for New Mexico families receiving cash assistance under TANF is an indication of what to expect once the work requirements for food stamp recipients are restored.

As with families receiving cash assistance, those enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program will face possible sanctions, including loss of benefits, for failing to meet work requirements.

The state has “kicked a lot of people off TANF,” says Sovereign Hager, a lawyer with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “We’ll expect the SNAP program to shrink because many people can’t comply with the work requirement.”

The administration of Gov. Susana Martinez plans to restore a 20-hour weekly work requirement – which can include job training or community service – in October for about 27,000 so-called able-bodied adults receiving food stamps.

The Department of Human Services had suspended the requirement in 2009 due to the recession.

“The point of this is to help people obtain the jobs skills or actual employment necessary to help them become more self-sufficient,” Human Services spokesman Matt Kennicott said.

Critics of restoring the work requirements for food stamp recipients, including the state’s Roman Catholic bishops, say New Mexico’s economy is still too weak and that some recipients will lose benefits because of an inability to find jobs.

The Human Services Department doesn’t have the ability to track the reasons why recipients of cash assistance fail to meet the work requirements of the TANF program, Kennicott said.

Under the cash assistance program, a single parent with a child age 5 or younger is required to work 86 hours a month; it’s 129 hours for a single parent with an older child. Adults in two-parent families are required to work a combined total of at least 151 hours a month and a maximum of 237 hours monthly, depending on whether they also receive child-care assistance.

There are about 9,000 adults and 26,000 children receiving assistance under the TANF program.

According to government data, 44 percent of the New Mexico families receiving cash assistance met the work requirements in the three-month period ended March 31. The national rate was just under 30 percent for the 2011 federal fiscal year, the most recent year for which national data is available.

The Department of Human Services provides assistance to recipients to help overcome barriers to work. Those barriers include such things as substance abuse, lack of a high school diploma or equivalent, lack of transportation and lack of needed work-related clothing or equipment.

A government contractor that provides services to cash assistance recipients to help meet work requirements also will help recipients of food stamps, according to Kennicott.

The private company, SL Start, has contracts in place with employment agencies and employers around New Mexico to help these individuals, the spokesman said.

“They’ll also be able to help with the community service and job training aspects. Our contractor also provides résumé writing help and other skills building services so that recipients will be well prepared to either look for work … or find a job where they can work the 20 hours a week,” he said in an email.

A recipient of cash assistance who meets the work requirements for that program will be considered in compliance with the work rules for food stamps.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at tcole@abqjournal.com or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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