by Matthew Reichbach, NM Political Report
Feb. 22, 2018

Proposed, sweeping and dramatic changes to a decades-old federal food aid program could have major negative impacts on many impoverished New Mexicans who rely on the program.

Donald Trump’s administration proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as food stamps, in his most recent budget recommendation. The proposal included providing food boxes to those who qualify for the program while slashing the amount of money the federal government spends by 30 percent over ten years. All of this would likely result in fewer people receiving fewer benefits through the program.

While the state splits the administrative costs of the program with the federal government, the federal government provides funding for the SNAP benefits New Mexicans receive.

Ed Bolen, a senior policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities who focuses on SNAP, said the driving force behind the proposal was to cut federal spending on the program. It’s similar in that way to Trump’s first budget proposal, which asked for direct cuts to the program, he told NM Political Report.

“When I look at the different provisions, I see proposals to force states to require people in high unemployment areas to find jobs, or cut them off after three months,” Bolen said. “That’s the provision that limits the waivers for childless adults who have a three month time limit with SNAP.”

New Mexico, which has the second-highest unemployment rate in the nation, has received a waiver for that problem.

Amber Wallin, the Deputy Director of New Mexico Voices for Children, pointed to the recent tax cut that became law as a driving force for the desire to cut federal spending from social welfare programs.

“We just had a $1.4 trillion tax cut that mainly goes to wealthy individuals, the most well-connected, the biggest corporations,” she said. “But at the same time we’re cutting crucial benefits for the kids and families who need them the most. It’s just unacceptable.”

She said the cuts would have a negative impact on families, children and businesses in the state.

“We have one of the highest percentages in the nation of children who receive SNAP. But even given our high SNAP participation rates and the high coverage rate in New Mexico, we still have the second-highest rate in the nation of childhood food insecurity.”

“This is in an environment where people are already going hungry. In a nation like ours where there’s so much wealth, it’s criminal that we have people going hungry,” James Jimenez, the executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, said. “And we’re not willing to help people adequately feed themselves.”

The changes would also impose some challenges on New Mexico.

Administration problems

Sovereign Hager, a managing attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, pointed out problems the state Human Services Department has had with administering SNAP benefits.

The Center on Law and Poverty is currently in a legal battle with the state regarding SNAP. A federal judge appointed a special master to oversee some federal benefits because HSD could not adequately do so on its own.

Implementing a system to require some to work to receive SNAP benefits, in particular, bedeviled the state when proposed by Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration.

“The governor has attempted to implement those requirements here, and the state could not do them lawfully,” Hager told NM Political Report. “It resulted in homeless people being kicked off, even though they’re supposed to be exempt, families with children that weren’t supposed to be subject to the requirement receiving notices that they were going to be limited to three months of SNAP if they weren’t employed.”

She noted the federal government has always allowed waivers for areas of high unemployment and said a lack of waivers would be “devastating” for many New Mexico families. Whether the state could administer the complex program would be a heavy test, one Hager says the state has failed in the past.

“They have to track people, track their employment, make sure they’re exempting folks appropriately and those are things the state has had great difficulty in doing,” Hager said of the state. “They have a lot of trouble with their IT system, making it work appropriately, making sure they have sufficient staff and training their staff. These are all things that have come up in the last two years in federal court.”

To Bolen, the end of waivers and other services only serve as a way to cut benefits.

[SNAP] is relatively efficient, which means the only way to make savings from a budgetary standpoint is to cut benefits,” he said. “You can claim you’re streamlining the program, but there’s not that much to streamline.”

And the food box proposal would only add a layer of bureaucratic complexity.

“I think sometimes there’s a lot of focus on this box of commodities that would replace some benefits,” Bolen said. “But that doesn’t really make any sense on a practical level and they don’t pay for the distribution costs, so calling it Blue Apron is a little misleading since the great thing about Blue Apron is they deliver it to your door.”

Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney described the food box idea as “a Blue Apron-type program,” referring to the popular food delivery service and was widely criticized for that characterization.

Some changes that could prove controversial include the increase of age requirement to be exempt from work requirements from 60 to 62 and capping the benefits at a household of six—meaning a family with more than six people could not get additional benefits as they currently can.

But they are all aimed at savings.

“Sometimes it gives the states more control over the program and hands them the bill for it, in other cases it takes control away from the states because it’s a different way of saving money,” Bolen said. “But the bottom line is it’s always a cut. There’s nothing in there that they’re adding, or improving the program, or helping people gain access.”

And the impact of cuts to the program would extend beyond those who receive the benefits.

For every federal dollar in SNAP benefits, the state sees about $1.70 in economic activity, according to studies. This comes from direct spending at 1,600 local retailers that accept SNAP benefits.

“It’s actually a very successful public-private partnership where those federal SNAP benefits flow directly into the economy all across the state, even in some of the very poorest parts of the state,” Hager explained. “[This proposal] brings that to a close and that’s going to impact our economy, especially our local economies in rural parts of the state in a really big way. And it will be really negative.”

Opposition to cuts

Another barrier to the proposed changes is that lawmakers are also not fully onboard with them.

Steve Pearce, a conservative Republican running for governor, told NM Political Report he “will not support anything that jeopardizes SNAP’s critical functions.”

“I do not support making arbitrary cuts to programs that provide vital support for New Mexicans’ needs,” he said. “Like many government programs, there are likely improvements that can be made to modernize SNAP.”

Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who is also running for governor, earlier criticized the cuts to SNAP and Medicaid.

“These cuts would have a devastating impact on seniors, veterans, and middle-class families, and I look forward to Director Mulvaney joining me in our state to meet the people who are supported by these programs,” Lujan Grisham said.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich also opposed the proposal.

“President Trump’s budget shows how out of touch he is with the realities for everyday people and is an attempt to balance massive tax giveaways on the backs of hardworking families,” Heinrich said. “The proposed new ‘food box’ program is a distraction from the very real cuts the Trump Administration is proposing to SNAP that would restrict access to affordable food for New Mexico families and pull the rug out from individuals who are already struggling in today’s economy.”

And U.S. Senator Tom Udall vowed to do what he could as part of the Senate Appropriations Committee that deals with the program to stop the cuts.

“SNAP is one of our country’s most successful safety net programs and the first line of defense against hunger for families across the country,” Udall said. “Nearly a quarter of all New Mexicans – including children, seniors, people with disabilities and families experiencing hardship – lean on SNAP at some point when they need a little help putting food on the table. President Trump’s proposed cuts to this essential program – and proposed changes that prevent families from making their own decisions about how to feed their families – would be devastating in our state.”

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