Op-Ed on work requirements
May 15, 2018 Silver City, NM

The Southwest New Mexico Regional Food Policy Council was established in January 2014, with the purpose of increasing access to healthy, affordable food and supporting local agriculture. The council also advocates for local and state policy that helps ensure those in New Mexico to have enough healthy food to eat. Due to this goal there are concerns regarding proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP plays a critical role in addressing hunger and food insecurity in our state and is the first line of defense against hunger for the working poor. The program is part of the USDA’s Farm Bill and it is up for re-authorization this month.

SNAP, previously known as the Food Stamp Program, is a government program designed to assist low income families to pay for food. The program provides participants with a small monthly stipend on a debit card that can only be used to buy food. To qualify, most households have-to pass a gross income test, a net income test, or both. Currently, most able-bodied adults under the age of 50 must also work to qualify. The USDA is proposing to increase this upper age limit to 60 years old and sanctioning those who refuse to work a 20-hour week by taking away their benefits. In addition, time limits are proposed for those receiving SNAP benefits following a period of un-employment. Currently, SNAP guidelines allow states to have the flexibility to temporarily waive work requirements for areas of the state during periods of elevated unemployment. This ability is under review and may be eliminated entirely.

This is of concern for New Mexico, which has a much higher percentage of older adults compared to other states. In the midst of a slow economic recovery, seniors aged 50 to 59 continue to face financial vulnerability in America. Between 2007 and 2009, food insecurity among people aged 50-59 increased 38%. Food insecurity in this age group among people of color was reported to be much higher compared to their white counterparts, with Hispanic and African Americas at least double. SNAP is the only nutrition assistance program available to most people 50-59, particularly in the rural communities. In addition, eighty percent of New Mexicans who receive SNAP benefits are working poor; a much higher percentage than the national average of sixty seven percent.

It is widely known that food insecurity can be detrimental for everyone, but as people age food insecurity can have serious long-term effects. Food insecure 50-59-year-olds were almost twice as likely to be diabetic (19% versus 10%), were far less likely to be in excellent or very good health (17% versus 44%), were much more likely to suffer from depression (16% versus 3%) and were more than twice as likely to have at least one ADL limitation (52% versus 21%). This age group entering the workforce (newly defined as being able-bodied adults without dependents).

In summary, expanding work requirements to include the 50 to 59 age group would most likely increase reliance on food safety nets in our rural communities. Are our churches and local food pantries able to meet an increased demand? Here in SW New Mexico, as well as communities throughout NM, the demand for supplemental and emergency food is growing while supplies are shrinking. Grant County has experienced a 50% cutback in federal Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) food supplies each year for the past two years. Other counties in our region have also experienced cutbacks in TEFAP but to a lesser extent.

And finally, is having enough food to eat a privilege for the wealthy few, and not a right for everyone? The SNAP program should not be curtailed. Time limits and work requirements for seniors aged 50-59 should be eliminated and current waiver allowances governing periods of high unemployment due to layoffs should be upheld. These measures will serve to maintain SNAP’s ability to provide food assistance to impoverished unemployed, and under-employed and reduce food insecurity among those seeking work.

The Southwest New Mexico Regional Food Policy Council works to promote and mobilize resources and infrastructure that guarantees healthy affordable food through local, sustainable agricultural economies of everyone in Hidalgo, Luna, Catron and Grant counties. To become a member of the SW Region Food Policy Council or to see how you can help with this issue, please contact: Benjamin Rasmussen at brasmussen@swchi.org or (575) 534-0101 ext. 2102 for more information.

Ben Rasmussen
Silver City, NM

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