by Justin Horwath, Santa Fe New Mexican
December 25, 2016

The state’s welfare program isn’t doing a good job of helping families out of poverty through education and job training, according to a new report by the nonprofit advocacy group New Mexico Voices for Children.

The group says its findings on the state’s management of the federally funded Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program underscore an argument it has long made: The state needs to increase its investments in education programs. It also needs to ensure that parents in the program have access to child care assistance and preschool, the report says, so they have time to improve their job skills.

“TANF was created in part to help parents move into the workforce, but it focuses too much on workforce participation (for adult recipients) and does not sufficiently address one of the reasons families fall into or remain in poverty: the lack of education credentials and job skills,” says the New Mexico Voices for Children report, released earlier this month.

Additionally, it says, the company that contracts with the state to run the assistance program “is not referring all eligible families to the Children, Youth and Families Department for child care assistance.”

A spokesman for Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration says the state is restricted in how it can spend federal funds for the welfare program, but he said state has provided its own funding for clients’ education and training.

A Republican-led Congress and Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1996 replaced the Depression-era Aid to Families with Dependent Children program with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a program that limited government cash assistance to 60 months in a lifetime for an adult. Work requirements also were set for adult beneficiaries.

States have flexibility in how they run their work-training programs and set eligibility criteria for benefits. In New Mexico, families with a gross income below 85 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $17,136 for a family of three in 2016, are eligible for assistance.

Up to 141,000 children in the state were living at or below the federal poverty in fiscal year 2015, according to the report. About 23,400 of those received benefits. Nearly 7,700 adults took part in the program, the vast majority single women. Fewer than 6 percent of the adults had a high school education, and 21 percent had jobs, according to the report, funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

New Mexico’s unemployment rate of 6.7 percent in November was the second worst in the nation, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Department of Labor. The national unemployment rate was 4.6 percent.

SL Start and Associates, a Washington state company, runs New Mexico’s work programs for those who receive benefits. The company reported in October that it had found jobs for 320 clients. The average starting salary was $9.40 per hour.

SL Start did not respond to requests for comment.

Asked to comment on the New Mexico Voices for Children report, Kyler Nerison, a spokesman for the New Mexico Human Services Department, said in an email that because policies for the benefit program “are set by the federal government and funds are specifically appropriated by the state legislature, the report’s recommendations would need to be implemented by policymakers at those levels.”

“We have worked with legislators to increase TANF funding for the New Mexico Works Career Links program, which provides education, skills improvement and subsidized employment,” Nerison said. “Through legislation, the Department is also establishing high school equivalency (GED) and vocation training programs.”

State taxpayers are pitching in $8.2 million for education and training programs for the current fiscal year, according to figures provided by Nerison. That includes $500,000 for a GED program, $1 million for a vocational program and $6.7 million for a CareerLink program.

Since 2011, the state has paid SL Start and Associates more than $63 million to manage the Human Services Department’s food assistance program and education and training programs for aid recipients, according to data from the state’s online Sunshine Portal.

SL Start is owned by Spokane-based Embassy Management, which is funded by Bregal Partners, a New York City private equity fund.

Nerison said almost 95 percent of funds going to SL Start are federal. About a third of the money paid to the company in the most recent fiscal year represented subsidized wages for New Mexicans placed in employment, he said.

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