By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE, N.M. — Work should not be a four-letter word, even when it comes to getting food stamps.
New Mexico’s Human Services Department plans on reinstating requirements in place before 2009 for people who receive food stamps under the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
HSD wants some — not all — of the recipients to look for work, attend a job training program or perform community service to keep their SNAP benefits.
Some anti-poverty groups are calling foul.
“We definitely think when you expand the number of people subject to mandatory work requirements, you’re obviously going to expand the number of people who can’t comply and who will be sanctioned out,” Louise Pocock, an attorney with New Mexico Center on Law Poverty, told KOB-TV.
But wait a minute. The rule won’t be forcing young mothers to abandon their toddlers. It won’t apply to disabled people who use food stamps, or the elderly.
The only people affected will be able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 59. Teenagers 16 and 17 who get SNAP benefits have to prove they’re in school or in a jobs training program.
According to HSD spokesman Matt Kennicott, if you’re a single parent with a child younger than 6, you’re exempt.
If you are receiving unemployment benefits, you’re exempt.
If you’re a college student — even if you’re only in school part-time — you’re exempt. Pregnant women are exempt.
If you have a low-paying job, you don’t have to apply for a better-paying job to keep your benefits.
If you’re a single parent with a kid older than 6, you have to prove you’re looking for a job but you can skip the jobs training and community service requirements.
All told, it will affect about 26,600 of the 420,000 in New Mexico who receive SNAP benefits.
They won’t be required to work a 40-hour work week, but rather spend 20 hours a week in one of the three programs for which they’re eligible.
But there aren’t any jobs, critics say.
HSD officials counter by saying they will assign case workers to the SNAP recipients to help. If they still can’t find work, the food stamps won’t end, but people must stay in the program to keep them. HSD will also supply child care assistance and a transportation reimbursement.
Welfare is “a second chance, not a way of life,” Bill Clinton said in 1993. In 1996 he signed legislation tying work requirements to government assistance. The requirements for SNAP benefits were suspended after the economic downturn.
The plan introduced by HSD simply reinstates the requirements that were on the books.
Yes, the New Mexico economy is in dumps, but there should be an incentive for able-bodied people to improve their economic situations. When you receive unemployment benefits, you have to turn in documentation to the Department of Workforce Solutions showing you’re making a good-faith effort to find work before getting a check.
If that’s not an undue burden, the HSD requirements hardly seem unreasonable, even in tough times.
The overwhelming majority of people receiving welfare benefits are honest people who need some help.
But, just as in any program, a handful abuse the system.
Here in New Mexico, Watchdog reporter Jim Scarantino two years ago discovered that in a two-month period, electronic benefit transfer cards were used at liquor stores, casinos, strip clubs and smoke shops — including a hookah lounge. Somebody even made an EBT withdrawal at a ski resort.
Taxpayers have a right to expect their tax dollars are spent efficiently and wisely. If money is being wasted on military spending or political cronyism or building projects or anti-poverty programs, the government you pay for has an obligation to root it out.
That’s not being mean-spirited. That’s being a good steward of the public’s dollars.
This editorial first appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican on Aug. 10, 2014. Contact Rob Nikolewski at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski