National nonprofits estimate as least 750,000 people nationwide could be at risk to lose benefits and potentially go hungry as the federal changes to work requirements to receive food aid go into effect in coming months.
For now, New Mexico will not see the same sort of cliff, officials from the Human Services Department said. New Mexico is one of just a handful of states currently exempt from the program changes under a federal waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, through Dec. 31.
Karmela Martinez, who heads the Income Support Division at HSD, said the agency is in the process of asking for another year-long federal waiver, citing the state’s high unemployment rates.
“We have already started the waiver process, basically a formal document we sent to our federal partners,” Martinez said. “We indicate that New Mexico meets one of several criteria to continue to be exempt.”
In June, debt ceiling negotiations in Congress included additional SNAP program work requirements.
All adults receiving SNAP who do not have federal disability nor any children living in the house have to meet additional work requirements. This includes working for pay, attending a training program or volunteering 80 hours a month.
Those requirements were reserved for people between ages 18 to 49. However, on Sept. 1 that age will be raised to 50, and raised to 52 by Oct. 1. In October 2024, the age limit requiring work will increase to 54.
If they don’t meet the criteria, adults without federal disability and with no children living in the house are limited to using SNAP benefits for three months out of three years. Exceptions to these new requirements are veterans, former foster youth who just aged out of care, and people experiencing homelessness.
Since HSD is required to send out information on any SNAP changes 45 days in advance, Martinez said an answer for a 2024 waiver is expected from the federal government “in – and no later than – October.”
HSD is requesting a waiver to exempt the whole state. If that is rejected, the state can still ask for county-level exemptions.
“We believe based on the unemployment rate in the state of New Mexico, that the waiver will be extended. But right now, we’re waiting for federal authorities,” Martinez said.
A report from the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated 13,000 New Mexicans between the ages of 50 and 54 may be at risk for losing SNAP benefits based on the new work requirements.
Martinez said the projection was accurate, but said it’s unclear how many would qualify for exemptions – such as veteran status, having partial employment or experiencing homelessness.
“I think that number will be lower,” she said. “But I think that is a pretty good assumption to go with, I’m confident in that report.”
Work requirements may discourage people from applying
The changes to SNAP come just before the program faces a potential fight in the 2023 Farm Bill, and while food prices have spiked dramatically – nearly 10% alone in 2022.
Food prices will continue to rise – they’re up nearly 5% from last year – the USDA projected in an Aug. 25 price index. While slowing, the report said, food prices won’t drop in 2024.
Lorenzo Alba is the executive director at Casa de Peregrinos, a food pantry with 14 sites across Doña Ana County. Alba said they gave out food to more than 35,000 people in 2020.
Alba said unemployment is not the driving force behind food insecurity.
“It’s the cost of food,” he said. “Inflation has really been the biggest contributor to the rise in clientele we’ve seen.”
Lorenzo Alba the executive director at the new Casa De Peregrinos building in Las Cruces. ‘We give each family that comes in here 85 to 100 pounds of food, to give them options,’ he said. (Danielle Prokop / Source New Mexico)
When SNAP extended benefits ended in February, emergency food providers like food banks and pantries saw bigger lines, said Jason Riggs, the community initiative manager for Roadrunner Food Bank.
“It hits the hardest on those families trying to raise their kids, single-parent homes, trying to work a couple of jobs, those seniors trying to live off that small social security check,” Riggs said. “But, it also affects the food banks. We can only put out so much food per month. The more people there are in line, the less food for everyone.”
Despite the high participation rate in SNAP, Riggs said continued stigma around food aid and the new work requirements could be counterproductive.
“There are people out there that are looking for a job, but the work requirements will scare them off of getting the help they need to get some food and then focus on finding work,” he said.
Work requirements would be a challenge for much of New Mexico, pointing to the issue of lack of job options, or transportation in rural portions of the state.
Riggs said in his 15 years of experience, he hasn’t seen studies that show the effectiveness of work requirements.
“I’ve never seen one that shows how work requirements actually get people off of SNAP and get people out of food pantry lines and into a job,” he said. “I think chronic poverty is a little bit trickier than that.”
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HSD is required to notify SNAP recipients of changes to the program 45 days before changes go into effect. If the waiver is denied, then HSD would send out white envelopes with the agency’s logo with information about the changes and possible exemptions. They would also post a Frequently Asked Questions section to the website.
Turquoise envelopes from HSD contain information reminding people to renew their benefits – which much be done every six months.
HSD Field Offices can be found here or call Constituent Services: (505) 709-5788 and email at [email protected]
If you’re considering applying for SNAP, Riggs said Roadrunner Food Bank can help anyone with questions across the state.
“We can assist them with the application over the phone, we could provide them information if they want to apply on their own.”
In addition to walking people through the process, they can answer basic questions about recertification. Riggs said to call the food bank at 844-684-6282, and leave a message. Someone will call back from the food bank within one to two business days.
Help is offered in both Spanish and English, and there are translation services for other languages.
He said it’s best to start the application process right away, even if you’re unsure you qualify.
“Regardless of when you get through everything, the interview and providing documentation, if you applied today, and are eventually approved; you’re going to get benefits retroactive to today,” Riggs said.