- Associated Press - Friday, July 17, 2015

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - The clock is ticking as New Mexico and other states move toward reinstating work and job-training requirements for certain low-income adults who receive food stamps.

Statewide waivers that have been in place since the economy took a dive in 2009 are expiring, and federal officials have warned that few states will be eligible for extensions.

New Mexico is proposing to go a step further by also reinstating work and training requirements for some teenagers and parents with children older than 6, a move that has sparked an outcry from social service advocates.

About 15 percent of New Mexico’s more than 493,000 food stamp recipients could be affected, and advocates say many people stand to lose their benefits because there aren’t enough jobs or meaningful training opportunities in the poverty-stricken state.

“There is a real fear, and that fear is based on the current work program,” said Louise Pocock, a staff attorney with the New Mexico Center for Law and Poverty. “We’ve seen numerous problems with the way this program is operated. It’s a one-size-fits-all program with no individual assessments.”

Activists boarded buses to Santa Fe on Friday for a final public hearing on the matter. Several dozen people attended the meeting.

As pressure to reinstate the requirements has grown, research by The Pew Charitable Trust shows some states have already made the leap.

Kansas, Oklahoma and Utah reinstated work requirements last year. Ohio, New York, Texas and Wisconsin all waived the work requirements for only part of the year or in certain areas of their states.

In New Mexico, Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration proposed reinstating work requirements last fall. A legal challenge followed, and the state dropped the effort.

The proposal was introduced again in May, with state officials saying mandatory requirements would ensure eligible families and individuals get the training and experience needed to support themselves.

Pocock and others are hoping the state will take into consideration the public comments and not impose the work and training requirements on the teens and those parents who would fall under the new rule until there’s evidence that the training and job placement programs are working. Pocock was among the advocates, experts and state officials who testified Thursday before the Legislative Health and Human Services Committee in Las Cruces.

Paul Gessing, president of the conservative Rio Grande Foundation, told lawmakers that the state’s proposal seems to be a work in progress and there needs to be confirmation that all of the resources to make it work are going to be available.

“But ultimately what we need is an effort in this state to get people back into the workforce,” he said in an interview. “The last thing we need is blank check saying ‘Don’t worry about work, we’ll take care of it.’ “

Human Services Department spokesman Matt Kennicott said the agency is willing to listen to recommendations. The comments, he said, will be compiled and a final plan submitted to federal officials.

The state plans to begin phasing in the changes in October.

Food-stamp benefits topped more than $675 million in New Mexico for the last fiscal year, a $40 million increase from the previous year.

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