TANF reforms may very well be a part of 2023 legislative session

The Legislative Health and Human Services Committee heard suggestions from the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty on how to reform the Temporary Relief for Needy Families, or TANF, program.

TANF, or NM Works as it is known in New Mexico, provides temporary financial assistance to families in crisis for things like rent, clothes, utilities and items not covered by SNAP EBT (formerly known as food stamps) benefits such as diapers.

“The income inequality that existed before COVID is a problem that exists here: the high rates of hunger and poverty and unemployment that we have we (The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty) think stems from the centuries of colonialism and economic policy that, in the past, has boosted corporations and other industries and not necessarily the people that lived here,” Director of the Public Benefits team at New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty Teague Gonzalez said. “What we’re finding is just how much the social costs of that inequality lie for why childhood poverty is so persistent here even after the child becomes an adult. Every child in New Mexico, and in this country should have opportunity.”

When low-income households have a financial boost, the children in those households benefit the most throughout their lifetime, Gonzalez said.

“Giving the households low-income children live in additional income will result in long-term impacts,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez presented a list of issues and possible reforms for the TANF program at the interim Legislative Health and Human Services Committee meeting on Nov. 29.

These reforms include ending sanctions that affect the children’s share of the TANF benefit over a parent’s alleged rule violation, restore exemptions for work requirements, increase the cash grant amount, provide flexibility for families trying to meet program requirements and ending the State retaining child support payments for families and not use child support payments as benefit calculation.

One of the sanctions removes a portion of the TANF amount if a parent fails to provide a pay stub in person at the planned time to their local Department of Human Services-Income Support Division field office.

For some TANF recipients, transportation is an issue and they may not be able to get the required paperwork to the DHS-ISD office on time sometimes.

That is considered a sanction and can be remedied within a 30-day period once a year. Other states are less stringent, Gonzalez said.

“The average TANF family participates in TANF for just 33 months out of 60 allowable months, yet an average of 30 percent of the families on the TANF caseload are sanctioned and the children receive reduced or no cash for months at a time,” Gonzalez said . “Mothers that leave TANF due to sanctions are less likely to become employed, and, if employed, have lower earnings than other families leaving welfare.”

As to the work requirement, some TANF clients have barriers to employment that were removed during the Susana Martinez administration.

“In 2011, HSD stopped exempting New Mexicans with significant barriers to employment from unpaid work hour requirements, even when they are disabled, dealing with domestic violence, or have a newborn,” Gonzalez said. “Losing all income at these crisis times, when families need cash assistance the most, causes further destabilization and increases the likelihood that families will need to return to TANF sooner and for longer in the future.”

The maximum amount a family can receive is $447 per month, although the average amount for a New Mexican TANF household receives $338 per month.

The TANF benefit amount has remained stagnant at 1996 levels which is “a 31 percent decrease in value when adjusted for inflation,” Gonzalez said. “The average cash grant for a family who receives TANF is $338 a month, or 18 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of three. Increasing the cash grant to at least 50 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines would ensure very low income families have some ability to meet basic needs for their children.”

The most common family dynamic in the TANF program is one adult and two children, Gonzalez said.

The average cash grant has not changed since 1996 even though, according to the CPI Inflation Calculator, there was 2.95 percent inflation in 1996 versus 7.75 percent inflation in 2022.

Only about 40 percent of eligible New Mexican families qualify for the program due to New Mexico’s stringent TANF implementation.

The fourth requested reform is for more flexibility for New Mexican TANF households to fix alleged violations as other states have already done.

“New Mexico should join other states in providing additional and ongoing opportunities for families to demonstrate compliance with program rules and retain benefits,” Gonlzalez said.

These states include Maine, Illinois and Washington, DC

Currently, New Mexico collects and keeps all but $100 to $200 of child support payments to a TANF household depending on the household size.

“New Mexico should follow Colorado’s lead and pass through all of the child support funds to these families and exempt child support from the monthly cash benefit calculation,” Gonzalez said.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, New Mexico Child Advocacy Center and Crossroads for Women made a video titled, “The Trouble with TANF” which is available on YouTube that contains interviews with TANF clients and their families telling their stories including their experiences with TANF.

The women interviewed talk about the indignities of waiting hours to have their initial one hour in-person interview with their newborn in tow or having to contact their children’s fathers who reacted badly to the calls, according to the mothers interviewed in the film.

The funding for TANF comes from a fixed federal block grant which can be used in any program that helps families living at or below the federal poverty level.

“Federal funding for the TANF block grant has been set at $16.5 billion each year since 1996; as a result, its real value has fallen by 40 percent due to inflation. State allotments were determined in 1996 based on historical spending and have not changed to account for demographic changes or population growth,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The 1996 change came during President Bill Clinton’s administration to give state’s more control over how the program is administered.

Of the grant amount New Mexico receives, 62 percent of it goes to other programs that benefit TANF households such as early pre-K, head start and childcare assistance, while the remaining 38 percent goes to the TANF cash assistance program.

This could be changing with the recent New Mexico Constitutional Amendment that will use a portion of the 1.25 percent of the five-year average year-end market values ​​of money in the Land Grant Permanent Fund for early childhood education. The remainder of the additional distribution will go to public education.

This change means that the New Mexico Legislature may be open to allocating more funds to the TANF cash grant program, Gonzalez said.

She also said that some legislation aimed at reforming TANF may be submitted at the 2023 New Mexico Legislative Session which begins Jan. 17.

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