Lawmakers indicated support for legislation that would reform a cash assistance program by increasing the amount distributed and eliminating barriers to make sure it gets to the most New Mexicans in need.
The primary problem: 60% of New Mexicans who qualify for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program are not enrolled and do not receive money that can help with groceries or child care, according to the Legislative Finance Committee.
“I would say one of the most important bills of the session would be to try to fix this issue,” said Sen. Jerry Ortiz Y Pino (D-Albuquerque) during Wednesday’s meeting of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.
And the issues that stem from this problem require a change in the program’s guidelines to prevent people from losing their benefits for reasons such as missing an appointment with a case manager, changing addresses, or choosing not to pursue child support from an ex-spouse.
TANF is a federal block grant that disburses millions of dollars each year through New Mexico’s Health and Human Services Department, which means the state can make adjustments to its program either through new legislation or an administrative 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 making 100% below the poverty line ($21,960 per year for a family of three).
Qualifying families or individuals could receive up to $447 a month in cash assistance for up to 60 months. It’s a modest amount but helpful for families. Even just a $3,000 annual boost in income for a family with a newborn child can be associated with a 17% increase in earnings for that child as an adult, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.
The amount available for families hasn’t been adjusted in New Mexico since the program was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996. The average payout is $338 a month, according to the Legislative Finance Committee. Advocates and lawmakers want to see an increase that at least doubles the current amount.
“We should allow much more of an opportunity for these families in our communities that are going through so much of crises,” said Sen. Linda Lopez (D-Albuquerque). “Living on 300 bucks a month, it’s nothing. You know, some of us go through groceries for that in about a week and a half, just because we have kids.”
Teague González with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty gave lawmakers examples of what causes issues for families trying to access TANF and outlined the changes the state must make, including reversing the Martinez-era reform.
Anyone enrolled in the program is assigned a case manager, and an action plan is created to help people as they progress with the aid. When a case manager requests a meeting, via phone or mail, people are required to attend or risk facing sanctions to their award.
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“Oftentimes the young parents we work with who miss interviews have insecure housing so they don’t receive the notice,” she said. “And they change their phone numbers a lot. A lot of people do. So it’s little technicalities that result in the progressive sanction.”
And those sanctions include a reduction in monthly aid, losing benefits for several months or all together. It can also impact households with multiple people who receive the benefits, because when one person is sanctioned, sometimes entire homes lose funding.
Advocates asked for lawmakers to join nine other states that eliminate full family sanctions, meaning other family members such as children and seniors can still receive their benefits if someone in their household is in violation.
Greater flexibility for people working through sanctions is another proposal. In New Mexico, a person enrolled in the cash aid program has one chance per year to make their case to avoid a reduction in payment after a complaint.
Reversing the Martinez-era reforms so the program can exempt work requirements for people with disabilities, or who are navigating violent environments or becoming parents to a newborn also saw support from legislators as a means to increase access to the aid.
The state is more strict than others when it comes to work requirements. Under the federal law, work requirements do not need to be met for the first 24 months a person is enrolled in the cash aid program.
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“The federal government realizes that when you need access to this kind of help, it’s usually a crisis moment in your life,” González said. “And so they allow for up to 24 months of just getting your family back on its feet before you even have to participate.”
Arika Sánchez, director of policy and advocacy with the New Mexico Child Advocacy Networks, said her group works with young people who must decide between finishing high school or meeting the work requirements to get the aid.
“They’re still trying to work toward their GED,” she said. “(They) don’t meet the education requirements. So many of them got off that GED path to pursue the work requirements in order to access the benefits.”
Lawmakers also showed interest in supporting reform that will adjust the requirement that parents file for child support from their ex-spouse in court. González said most families will already pursue child support if they think it is safe.
“But when it’s not, because it will incur more violence in their family — like either emotional or physical violence — they elect not to,” she said. “Or it might disrupt a healthy relationship that the custodial parents may have with some other family members in the non-custodial family. So for those three very common reasons, people elect not to pursue child support.”
Lopez affirmed legislative support on this matter.
“The child support issue is something that we’ve talked about many times,” Lopez said. “And I’m hopeful that this will go through and pass the Legislature, because it just makes sense.”