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Food stamp work rule sparks debate

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SANTA FE – A proposal to reimpose and broaden work requirements for as many as 80,000 New Mexico food stamp recipients has provoked strong reactions, with opponents calling the changes harmful to those most in need and supporters saying they would help reduce dependency on government and help people acquire job skills.

The state’s Roman Catholic bishops and other advocacy groups are among critics of the food stamp plan rolled out by Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration, which held a public hearing on the proposed changes Friday.

New Mexico families “deserve not only access to high-quality public education, but the right to have their basic needs met, and food is one of those needs,’ said American Federation of Teachers-New Mexico President Stephanie Ly in a statement issued Friday.

“Work requirements in a shrinking job market doesn’t make sense,” she added.

Paul Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation, an Albuquerque-based think tank that backs free-market policies, spoke in support of the change. But most of those who spoke among the crowd of about 100 opposed the change.

Guessing said the proposed changes, which would affect certain low-income adults and teenagers, are reasonable and not as “draconian” as opponents are making them out to be.

“We’re not doing people a favor by keeping them out of work and dependent (on government) for the foreseeable future,” Gessing told the Journal after the hearing.

Victoria Padilla of Albuquerque, a recent university graduate and the mother of a 2-year-old child, said after Friday’s hearing that she has relied on food stamps and student loans in recent years to make ends meet.

“I think these changes, although they might not affect me, would affect a lot of working parents,” said Padilla, who attended the hearing along with other employees of the nonprofit Southwest Organizing Project.

The state’s Human Services Department is expected to decide next month whether to adopt the proposed rules. They would take effect in October.

If adopted, the new regulations would mean a reinstatement of a 20-hour-a-week work mandate for childless adults to get food stamps. That requirement was previously in place but was suspended in 2009 because of the economic downturn. On-the-job training and community service could also be used to help meet the mandate.

In addition, a new job search or community service requirement would be imposed on low-income parents – of children ages 6 and older – and caregivers. Pregnant women, students enrolled in school and individuals participating in drug or alcohol treatment programs would be among those exempted from the requirement, according to the state agency.

The Human Services Department has defended the proposed changes by pointing out that most other public assistance programs also feature a work requirement.

The food stamp program, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, was overhauled by Congress – and then-President Bill Clinton – in 1996 to include a work requirement, among other things.

“The purpose of this rule is to help give people a hand up,” agency spokesman Matt Kennicott told reporters after Friday’s hearing, adding that the state would help affected individuals to find job-training programs.

However, Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, testified at the hearing Friday that many food stamp recipients want to find work but have been unable to do so due to the sluggish condition of the state’s economy.

“If we’re serious about this, we need to help people find employment, not take food off their table,” Padilla said.

About 420,000 New Mexicans currently receive food stamps, with the benefits averaging $265 a month. Children make up nearly half of those receiving assistance.

The federal government pays for the program, and about $680 million was spent during the last budget year in New Mexico, Kennicott said.

Eligibility for food stamps is based on income. An individual can earn up to about $1,580 a month – just under $19,000 a year – to qualify. Income-based guidelines change for families.

Human Services Secretary Sidonie Squier was not present for Friday’s hearing, which is the only public hearing scheduled on the proposed food stamp requirements. The agency’s spokesman said she had scheduling conflicts.

The department will decide whether to adopt the proposed rules after considering written and oral testimony and receiving a hearing officer’s report. That report is expected to be submitted Sept. 15.

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