January 31, 2023

Tricky rules and old requirements could prevent more than half of the people who need help from accessing it

More than half of New Mexicans who qualify for temporary assistance to families in need are not receiving the cash assistance they can use for groceries and other basic necessities. (Photo by Shaun Griswold/Source NM)

Lawmakers have signaled support for legislation that would reform a cash assistance program by increasing the amount distributed and removing barriers to ensure most of those in New Mexico in need are reached.

The main problem: 60% of New Mexicans who qualify for the Temporary Support for Needy Families program are not enrolled and receive no money that could help with groceries or childcare, according to the Legislative Finance Committee.

“I would say one of the most important bills in the session would be an attempt to solve this problem,” Sen. Jerry Ortiz Y Pino (D-Albuquerque) said during Wednesday’s session of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.

A proposal has yet to be submitted. Lawmakers can pre-send legislation for the 2023 Legislative Session beginning Jan. 3. The 60-day session begins January 17 in Santa Fe.

And the problems that arise from this issue require a change in program policy to prevent people from using their benefits for reasons such as missing an appointment with a case manager, changing addresses, or deciding not to claim child support from an ex-spouse receive, lose.

TANF is a state block grant that disburses millions of dollars each year through the New Mexico Department of Health and Human Services, which means the state can make adjustments to its program, either through new legislation or a government order. The latter is how Gov. Susana Martinez implemented stricter work requirement guidelines for the program in 2011.

In 2018, more than $33 million went to families in the state who earned 100% below the poverty line ($21,960 per year for a family of three).

Eligible families or individuals can receive up to $447 in cash assistance monthly for up to 60 months. It’s a modest amount but helpful for families. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, even an annual income increase of just $3,000 for a family with a newborn child can translate to a 17% increase in income for that child as an adult.

The amount available for families has not been adjusted in New Mexico since the program was enacted by President Bill Clinton in 1996. The average payout is $338 per month, according to the Legislative Finance Committee. Proponents and lawmakers are calling for an increase that at least doubles the current amount.

“We should give a lot more opportunity to these families in our communities who are going through so many crises,” said Sen. Linda Lopez (D-Albuquerque). “Living on $300 a month is nothing. You know, some of us go through groceries in about a week and a half just because we have kids.”

Teague González of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty gave lawmakers examples of the problems families trying to access TANF cause and outlined the changes the state needs to make, including reversing Martinez-era reform.

A case manager is assigned to everyone enrolled in the program and a plan of action is created to help people as the aid progresses. If a case manager requests a meeting by phone or email, people must be present or risk receiving sanctions for their acceptance.

“Often the young parents we work with who miss interviews have unsafe housing so they don’t get notification,” she said. “And they often change their phone numbers. Lots of people do. So it is small formalities that lead to the progressive sanction.”

And those penalties include a cut in monthly aid, the loss of benefits for several months, or all together. It can also affect households with multiple people receiving the benefits, because when one person is sanctioned entire households sometimes lose funding.

Proponents have urged lawmakers to join nine other states in removing sanctions for whole families, meaning other family members like children and seniors can still receive their benefits if someone in their household breaks the rules.

Another suggestion is greater flexibility for people working with sanctions. In New Mexico, a person participating in the cash assistance program has an opportunity to file their case once a year to avoid a reduction in payment following a complaint.

Reversing the Martinez-era reforms so that the program could relieve work requirements for people with disabilities or those who navigate a violent environment or who will become parents of a newborn baby, also saw legislature support as a means to increase access to improve help.

The state is stricter than others when it comes to job requirements. Under federal law, work requirements do not have to be met for the first 24 months that an individual is enrolled in the cash assistance program.

“The federal government recognizes that when you need access to this type of assistance, it is usually at a critical moment in your life,” González said. “And so they allow up to 24 months to get your family back on their feet before you even have to attend.”

Arika Sánchez, director of policy and advocacy at New Mexico Child Advocacy Networks, said her group works with young people who are making a choice between completing high school or meeting job requirements to receive the aid.

“They’re still trying to work towards their GED (diploma),” she said. “(They) do not meet the educational requirements. So many of them strayed from that GED (diploma) path to meet job requirements to access the benefits.”

Lawmakers have also expressed interest in backing a reform that will amend the requirement for parents to seek child support from their ex-spouse in court. González said most families will already apply for child support when they feel it is safe.

“But if they don’t, they choose not to because it will lead to more violence in their family — like emotional or physical violence,” she said. “Or it could disrupt a healthy relationship the custodial parents may have with some other family members in the noncustodial family. For these three very common reasons, people choose not to file for child support.”

Lopez reiterated support from lawmakers on the matter.

“The issue of child support is something we’ve talked about a lot,” Lopez said. “And I’m confident that this will go through the legislature and happen because it just makes sense.”

To read more stories from Source NM, visit www.sourcenm.com.

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