Despite working as a home health aide in New Mexico for nearly two decades, Kimberly Jones was struggling to get the hours she needed to make ends meet. 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,” Jones says. “They don’t care if you eat or not.”
Jones applied for food stamps. She says the state worker she met with told her she was eligible for expedited assistance, and she’d get her benefits within a week.
But the money didn’t show up. Not for two months.
In a recent federal court hearing, nine employees of New Mexico’s Income Support Division — which oversees food stamps — took the stand to testify about fake assets being added to food stamps applications.
Documents show Jones didn’t list any assets on her application, but somewhere along the line, someone changed the number so her case file showed $150. That’s enough to bump her out of the emergency help category.
“When you take someone’s food from them, they don’t have anything, and that’s really sad,” Jones says. “And for them to take that away, it makes you feel like nothing.”
When higher-ups were questioned in court, they pleaded the Fifth repeatedly. The state launched an internal investigation, but the results are sealed, and officials have refused to grant interviews about the allegations.
“It cuts across that myth that the food stamps participants commit fraud,” says Sovereign Hager, who works with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.
Hager is one of the lawyers who took the state to court.
“The bigger danger here is that we’re not administering these programs effectively — that eligible people can’t get what they need when they need it,” she says.
Actually, New Mexico’s been under legal pressure for more than 20 years about how it doles out public assistance.
Angela Dominguez, one of the Income Support Division workers who testified against the state said she would repeatedly pass a case file to a manager for review, but when it came back it was no longer an emergency food stamp case.
“I was asked to falsify applications,” says Angela Dominguez, one of the Income Support Division workers who testified against the state. “They taught me.”
That’s similar to what happened to Jones.
“Nobody wanted to do it,” Dominguez says. “It was wrong.”
Dominguez lives in southeastern New Mexico in the city of Portales, which is surrounded by farms. This winter’s cold snap killed thousands of dairy cows.
She says that affected the livelihood of many families in her area and sent folks into her office looking for help.
“It’s a small community,” Dominguez says. “I have to face these families. I see them at the grocery store. These are people that are counting on me to do right by them. I couldn’t keep living that way.”
She tried to bring up the issue internally first and says she got nowhere, so she contacted the state employees union. She thought her office was the only one falsifying applications, but the union found workers with the same story in other parts of New Mexico.
Dominguez says this has been happening for years.
“It’s ridiculous,” she says. “It’s ridiculous that it’s gone on this long and that nobody’s said anything.”
Since the allegations surfaced, a top official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees food stamps, has called New Mexico’s system the “most fouled-up” in the country.
In a letter, state officials outlined reforms. But the judge could put a third party in charge of processing food stamps applications in New Mexico.