Tens of thousands of low-income New Mexicans will have more time to meet work and job-training requirements if they want to remain eligible for food stamps, state officials announced Tuesday.
New Mexico Human Services Secretary Brent Earnest told The Associated Press that his department decided to delay implementation of the requirements and make some changes in response to concerns voiced during recent public meetings.
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The final rules will be published Friday, and Earnest said the delay in implementation will give the state and the 60,000 recipients who stand to be affected more time to prepare.
"This is really about helping people build the skills they need to become more self-sufficient, move off of the public assistance programs and move back into regular employment either by getting a job or improving their earnings on the job," he said. "That's the focus of this. It's not about kicking people off the program."
Social service advocates have argued that many people stand to lose their benefits because there aren't enough jobs or meaningful training opportunities in the poverty-stricken state.
They have also criticized the state's work program as a one-size-fits-all approach with no individual assessments for prospective workers.
Earnest said those concerns were heard and the state will be working with its contractor to ensure there are assessments that will look at what skills people need to develop in order to find work or what barriers might exist.
Another focus will be ensuring that the contractor has the right connections with employers and community service agencies, Earnest said.
"Really it's about building out a more robust list of places people can go and gain the skills they need," he said.
The requirements will be phased in starting Jan. 1 for adults without children. Those recipients with children under the age of 13 will be exempt, and those with children who don't qualify for an exemption will have to meet the requirements starting Oct. 1, 2016, seven months later than initially proposed.
For adults with children, the state also raised the age limit from 6 to 13, acknowledging that some families had concerns about child care costs.
New Mexico and other states have been moving toward reinstating work and job-training requirements for some food stamp recipients since federal officials warned that few states would be eligible for extensions of waivers that have been in place since the economy took a dive in 2009.
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 first proposed reinstating work requirements last fall. A legal challenge followed, and the state dropped the effort.
The proposal was introduced again in May and more criticism followed.
The New Mexico Center for Law and Poverty and other groups had asked the state not to impose the new rules until there was evidence that the training and job placement programs were working.
Food-stamp benefits topped more than $675 million in New Mexico for the last fiscal year, a $40 million increase from the previous year. Enrollment also has ballooned to about 497,000 recipients.
While enrollment is expected to start leveling out, state officials say the work requirements will not be a big factor in estimating future enrollment.
About 12 percent of food stamp recipients in New Mexico — rather than the initial 15 percent — will be affected by the new rules, state officials said.