Judge delays state work requirements for food stamps

New Mexico’s adult food stamp recipients who have no children get another year before they have to prove they are working or attending training to collect their monthly payment.

The state’s Human Services Department, which oversees welfare and food stamps, can’t implement its work requirements until December, a federal judge ruled late Monday.

Judge Kenneth Gonzales forced the delay after hearing testimony as part of a 28-year class action lawsuit against the department brought by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

The center’s most recent filings in the case have targeted the state’s attempts, starting in 2014, to require adult food stamp recipients who aren’t supporting children to prove they are working 20 hours a week or are enrolled in a work training program or lose their monthly food stamps after three months.

By federal law, pregnant women, people with a child in their home, homeless people and physically and mentally disabled people are exempt from any state work requirements.

The state began implementing the requirements in January.

“We are disappointed with the judge’s ruling – it was misplaced,” Human Services Department spokesman Kyler Nerison said in an emailed statement.

“The judge’s decision delays us from engaging 11,000 of those recipients in employment search, job training and community service opportunities that would have helped them transition off of public assistance,” he said.

Sovereign Hager, staff attorney at the Center on Law and Poverty, said food stamp recipients weren’t given proper notice about who is exempt and how to comply with the new rules.

“For people who are relying on food assistance, it is actually a huge impact on them,” she said. “The burden on the state to make these fixes to postpone implementation is not as great.”

Federal law for decades has allowed states to enact work requirements and duration limits, but for years New Mexico has sought and qualified for a federal waiver of work and duration requirements.

Gov. Susana Martinez has pushed for a return of work requirements and lobbied for the state and other states to reject the waivers. New Mexico this year secured a waiver for only parts of the state.

In an August 2015 opinion piece published in The Washington Times and co-written with Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, Martinez said, “Government should empower citizens to live life free from the bondage of poverty and government dependence,” arguing that work requirements for welfare and food stamp recipients are a way to do that.

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