More than one in five New Mexicans is on food stamps—that’s almost half a million people. Advocates are concerned that coming changes could force people off the federally funded program, and many religious folks are speaking out against the possible new rules. Faith leaders don’t see feeding the hungry as a partisan issue but rather as a basic tenet of their faith.
The New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops doesn’t come forward with an opinion on every issue that crops up. And though the bishops are nonpartisan, they often find themselves aligned with conservatives during debates about abortion or same-sex marriage, for example. When it comes to poverty and social services, that’s not the case.
Allen Sánchez, executive director of the conference, said it’s clear in scripture that people are to be fed—fed with hope, and literally, with food. "Let me tell you, particularly for Catholicism, we believe that God has a preferential option for the poor, that God has favorites, and his favorites are the poor."
The bishops and leaders from other denominations are gearing up to fight expanded work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as SNAP or food stamps. "Pope Francis, I mean worldwide, is calling our attention to this today, is that some people don’t have enough," Sánchez said, "not for the lack of their ability, but for the lack of sharing."
With the proposed SNAP rule changes, a larger age group—16 to 60—would be required to look for jobs, undergo job training or volunteer for community service. And parents of children aged 6 or older would just have to conduct job searches. But Sánchez says, in a state that’s No. 1 for childhood hunger, tougher SNAP work requirements will only exacerbate the problem.
"They’re taking food out of the mouths of babes," he said. "And there is an attitude of being angry at people for being poor. It’s not the war on poverty, it’s turning into a war on the poor."
Matt Kennicott, spokesperson for the Human Services Department, said he noticed the high turnout of people of faith at last year’s hearings about the SNAP rule change, and he welcomes their criticism.
But he said he thinks there’s a misunderstanding about what’s behind the changes. He said the goal is not to reduce the number of people using SNAP in New Mexico. "We remain very committed to providing whatever assistance we can to those New Mexicans who are most in need."
The rules could affect about 80,000 people, Kennicott said, and would be implemented in two stages: People without kids would be affected in October, and parents would be subject to the rules in March. He said the proposed changes are very similar to regulations that were in place until 2009.
"The point of these rules is to help people become more self-sufficient and help them find jobs and help them get back to work like we hear so many people talking about," he said.
But the question most opponents are asking is: Where are the jobs? That’s what Ruth Hoffman wanted to know. She pointed out that job growth since the recession has been painfully slow in New Mexico.
"We hear the department say, 'We’re trying to help folks get into jobs.' But is this the way to do that? And do you have a proven track record of being able to do that?" she asked.
Hoffman is the director of Lutheran Advocacy Ministry, and on this issue, she also speaks for the state’s Conference of Churches, which represents Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians and more. She says churches everywhere have a tradition and history of feeding the hungry.
"Almost every congregation in this country that I’m aware of does that kind of work," she said. "It’s unrealistic to think it should all be done by charity."
Hoffman said when government food services fail, congregations pick up the slack. "There’s a place for charity. There’s a place for public policy," she said. "Our government is a way of us acting together."
Public policy, she said, is not the only solution, but it should be part of the mix.
Friday, July 17, 2015
1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Department of Health Harold Runnels Building Auditorium
1190 St. Frances Drive, Santa Fe
KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation