Hungry people in New Mexico may have been denied expedited food assistance after their applications were falsified and put on hold. That’s according to testimony from state workers in recent weeks during an ongoing hearing about whether the Human Services Department is fit to process applications.
In December, Kimberly Jones was struggling to get the hours she needed as a home health aide, a job she’s done for 18 years. She was living in a hotel room, and every day, she had to make a choice. "Do I eat or do I pay for the room? Or how can I squeeze them both? Because, you know, the hotel wants their money," she said. "They don’t care if you eat or not."
She decided to apply for food stamps. She said the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program told her she was eligible for emergency help, and that she should see her EBT card fill up soon. "Food is the only thing that you can do to get by," Jones said. "To make things a little easier is not having to worry if you’re going to be able to eat."
According to emergency food stamps rules, the money should have shown up within seven days. But it didn’t, not for weeks. After asking around, Jones found a lawyer focused on poverty issues who helped her make the call to find out what happened. Jones remembered they waited on hold for more than an hour. But when they finally spoke to someone, she said she got her food stamps right then and there. It was February—two months after she applied.
"When you take someone’s food from them, they don’t have anything, and that’s really sad," she said. "And for them to take that away, it makes you feel like nothing."
These days, Jones lives in her own apartment. She works seven days a week, from about 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. She says she still gets about $75 a month in food assistance and has to make use of church charity programs and food pantries around town. "It doesn’t matter if you have a piece of job or try to have a piece of job, you know, food helps," she said.
Lawyer Sovereign Hager with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty said Jones’ story is common. "Some of the poorest people in New Mexico are being denied those benefits in order to make processing numbers look better," she said.
In recent hearings, state workers took the stand to testify that applications were changed, falsified, by the division so they showed people who were seeking food assistance had more assets than they did. That way it wouldn’t look like the state was blowing deadlines.
Hager watched high-ranking Human Services Department officials plead the fifth over and over in court—97 times, even when they were asked basic questions. HSD did not respond to KUNM’s half a dozen requests for an interview. So it’s not clear who knew what.
Hager said their inability to answer questions in court speaks for itself. "Well, of course they know what’s going on. If they didn’t know what was going on, they could testify to that," she said. "So, obviously this goes up to the highest levels. It’s extremely troubling."
Hager said the feds should investigate the department—and the state auditor should, too. But, she added, people need help now. The center’s asking the court to put a third-party expert in charge of processing applications in New Mexico. "We want the judge to enter an order as soon as possible to that effect just to protect those families," she said.
Miles Conway said these issues have been going on for a long time and he’s proud of the whistleblowers who put their jobs on the line by speaking out in court. He’s with the public service employees union.
"There are constantly new mandates being handed down from Santa Fe," he said. "It’s just becoming very difficult to even to do the jobs that these individuals are trained to do, and that they are ethically sworn to do in a certain manner."
It was sad, Conway said, watching these court hearings unfold, and he’s apologetic to all the New Mexicans who had to struggle to feed themselves or their kids. "I felt bad that we hadn’t been able to connect the dots to find this smoking gun sooner so that we could have begun to make this very serious change in how New Mexico is running its Income Support Division," he said.
And as for Jones? She said the state has to step up. "I hope they get it right. For us little people, get it right."
The next hearing is set to begin July 6 in Las Cruces.
The Human Services Department wouldn’t make anyone available for an interview, but right before airtime, a spokesperson emailed a statement saying the department takes the allegations seriously and has launched an internal investigation.
Thanks to Samantha Sonner of KRWG in Las Cruces for contributing to this report.
KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Con Alma Health Foundation and McCune Charitable Foundation. Find more info on our site, publichealthnm.org, along with links to more coverage by our partner KNME / New Mexico PBS.