The results from the 2022 Kids Count Data Book, released this week by the nonprofit New Mexico Voices for Children, are mixed, the group’s executive director, Amber Wallin, said. NMVC releases the Kids Count Data Book annually at the start of the Legislative session to provide policy makers with information and statistics on how New Mexico’s children and families are doing on four fronts: educationally, economically, health and family and community. Data gathering for the data book was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and that problem continues, with some data reflecting pre-pandemic conditions, Wallin said during a press conference this week. Some of the data reflects averages from the years 2016 to 2020, she said. One of the most striking deficits the 2022 data book reveals is child hunger.
U.S. Census data released on Tuesday indicated national improvements in income, poverty and health insurance for families across the U.S.
New Mexico Voices for Children, a nonprofit that advocates for legislative policies that benefit children, believe the new census data showing some initial improvements could positively impact New Mexico’s child well-being that were not reflected in the 2022 National KIDS COUNT Data Book. The recent 2022 Data Book, which the Annie E. Casey Foundation released in August, ranked New Mexico at 50th for child well-being. Emily Wildau, research and policy analyst for NMVC, said that the census information released on Tuesday does not drill down into state-level data but more census data at the state level will be released later this week.
But, she said, the new data includes supplemental income benefits, such as SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program], TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] and tax credits. “Adding in these income supplemental benefits gives a nuanced look,” she said. Wildau said the overall drop in poverty for children at the national level is, “truly astonishing.”
“The biggest thing we see is the overall rate of poverty for kids under 18 dropped from 9.2 percent [in 2020] to 7.8 percent [in 2021],” she said.
With federal unemployment assistance ending in New Mexico on Sept. 4, Albuquerque resident Rhiannon Chavez-Ross worries she could lose her house. A single mom with two children, Chavez-Ross lost her party and event business when the COVID-19 pandemic began. She said she received a Paycheck Protection Program loan of less than $1,000 for her business last year and she has been on unemployment benefits since the early days of the virus’ spread. But, she said she has had to supplement her unemployment relief with money from her savings.
New Mexico is one of two states – the other is New York – that meets the gating criteria set by the White House for reopening, according to a group of public health and crisis experts. A website called covidexitstrategy.org is mapping the state-by-state response to reopening and, according to the map, only New Mexico and New York meet the gating criteria established by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The organization is made up of public health and crisis experts who are nonpartisan and worked at the federal level during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, according to the site. The criteria include things like the number of ICU beds available and the downward trajectory of documented cases within a 14-day period. Dr. David Scrase, New Mexico’s secretary of the Health and Human Services Department, talked about the map and New Mexico’s criteria for reopening during a town hall meeting broadcast live through social media Wednesday along with Dr. Richard Larson, vice chancellor for research with the University of New Mexico Health Science.
LAS CRUCES—A year-old scandal involving alleged systemic fraud with the state’s management of federal food aid benefits was the elephant in the federal courtroom Thursday. Both Kenneth Gonzales, a federal district judge, and Lawrence Parker, a court-appointed “special master” who is tasked with guiding the New Mexico Human Service Department (HSD) in its federal compliance with Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, alluded to the scandal at the hearing. “What nobody wants to see, and you especially, is a culture that allows this to happen,” Gonzales told HSD Secretary Brent Earnest. Parker emphasized that “many of those same people” who were alleged in 2016 to have instructed HSD employees to falsify SNAP applications to meet federal quotas “are still in place” at the department.[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]No ads. No clickbait.
More than one year after three top state officials refused to answer questions in federal court about fraud allegations and nine months after a federal judge held their cabinet secretary in contempt of court, the state Human Services Department (HSD) appears to still be seriously mishandling how it processes federal benefits to New Mexico’s poor. [perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]No ads. No clickbait. Just news. [/perfectpullquote]This includes an apparent department directive instructing caseworkers to limit interviews with those enrolled in and seeking federal benefits and lie to their superiors about it.
Tens of thousands of Medicaid recipients in New Mexico are not receiving their health benefits on time, according to numbers from state government. As of February of this year, more than 48,000 Medicaid cases up for renewal are not being processed by the state Human Services Department (HSD) on time, according to a federal court filing in April citing HSD’s own numbers. And that number of Medicaid renewal delays has only grown to more than 59,000 as of May 10, according to Maria Griego, a staff attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “They’re pretty bad,” Griego said of the delays. While the number of New Mexicans who haven’t received their Medicaid benefits on time has been expanding, HSD erased a large part of the backlog of renewal applications for the federal Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.
In April, five employees of the state agency that processes key federal benefits to the poor made explosive testimonies in court—that their bosses instructed them to doctor emergency food aid applications to hurt the very people they’re supposed to help. The following month, four more Human Services Department employees added their voices to the allegations. Then, three top state officials were called to the stand and pleaded the Fifth, refusing to answer nearly 100 total questions about their role in the scandal. Previously: Top ten stories of 2016: 10-6; #5: NM Dems buck national trend, retake House; #4: Demesia Padilla resigns; #3: AG clears final behavioral health providers; #2: State budget situation worsens
“In my opinion, we’re cheating those families,” Angela Dominguez, one of the HSD employees, said in her court testimony. The underlying question next became, why?
Media coverage of planned tax legislation has so far focused on one hot-button topic of the proposal—reinstating a state tax on food. Santa Fe Archbishop John C. Wester and advocacy groups like New Mexico Voices for Children have vocally opposed the idea. But the two state representatives behind the proposal have not actually filed any legislation on the matter for the session that begins in January. Legislators could begin introducing bills on Dec. 15.
The state wants to extend a waiver that allows the state to waive work requirements for federal food benefits. The Santa Fe New Mexican reported the news of the proposed waiver coming from the embattled state Human Services Department. The department previously sought to reimplement the work rules for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, but a federal judge blocked the request. Earlier this year, a federal judge slammed HSD for doing the work of creating new rules and procedures for the work requirements while not working toward compliance with a decades-old consent order. Last week, a federal judge named a Texas administrator as a “special master” to oversee the department’s food benefits functions.