by Judith E. Barnstone, Santa Fe New Mexican

I am grateful to U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales, who, early in March, issued an injunction to prevent the Human Services Department from imposing work requirements for those enrolled in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Our state currently has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country – 6.5 percent. New Mexico, therefore, qualifies for extended unemployment benefits, and as a result, the federal government grants it permission to waive the requirement that SNAP beneficiaries document work. Without this injunction, HSD would reinstate work requirements, placing many New Mexicans at increased risk of food insecurity.

Federal work requirements apply to a small portion of potential SNAP beneficiaries. Those exempt from work requirements include those younger than age 18, over age 50, certified as disabled or pregnant, or caring for a child or incapacitated household member. Nationally, according to the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities, about 86 percent of beneficiaries are exempt for these reasons. In states or counties where waivers have not been granted, all others must document eighty hours of work or training per month in order to receive SNAP benefits for more than three months.

It is argued that the poor need this push to seek and retain work, but that is not what evidence reveals. According to the budget policy center, nationally, over 60 percent of SNAP recipients actually do work, and in New Mexico, according to New Mexico Voices for Children, 78 percent of households receiving SNAP have at least one worker.

Further, if documenting work effort is meant to create a work incentive, it is unnecessary: Research from the budget policy center shows that an impressive 96 percent of households earning incomes low enough to be SNAP eligible continue to work once on the program. Since those who can work generally do, those who do not are likely struggling to find opportunities in our lagging employment market.

The Human Services Department estimates that the work mandate, if implemented, would impact approximately 17,500 low-income New Mexicans. With our poverty rate hovering around 21 percent and food insecurity at over 16 percent, many households need the support of SNAP to meet their basic needs. Voices for Children reports that low-income New Mexicans spend about a quarter of their income on food and miss, on average, 12 meals a month.

According to the budget policy center, SNAP boosts the available income of low-wage recipients by over 10 percent. Even with that support, however, SNAP beneficiaries still find themselves with limited access to healthy and sufficient food. According to Voices, almost 80 percent of all households receiving SNAP exhaust their benefits within two weeks each month, and nearly all run out in three. Cutting from SNAP those who fail to comply with work requirements could worsen already high food insecurity if jobs for the unemployed are not available in our struggling economy.

Additionally, requiring documentation of work efforts would increase the administrative burden on both the Human Services Department workers and SNAP beneficiaries. In the recent past, HSD struggled to process SNAP applications in a timely and consistent manner and had court oversight imposed to assure its compliance with federal regulations. Introducing work requirements may unnecessarily strain an already stressed system, when most SNAP recipients are already working.

Some argue that this injunction represents a “win” for the “poverty industry” and a “loss” for the poor. I firmly disagree. As the data indicates, most of the poor do not need to be coerced to work. Helping them meet their most basic needs until opportunities are available to sufficiently meet their own needs is both smart and humane. We do not have to implement work requirements, according to federal standards. So why should we?

Judith E. Barnstone, MSW, Ph.D., is assistant professor of the Facundo Valdez School of Social Work at Highlands University.

Copyright 2016, Santa Fe New Mexican,