1 in 5 New Mexicans gets government help for food

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — One in five New Mexicans now receives government help to buy food.

The number of people enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, soared as the nation's economy began sinking a couple of years ago, with more than 400,000 New Mexico residents now receiving the benefits, the Albuquerque Journal Monday reported in a copyright story.

SNAP benefits, once known as food stamps, are a safety net for people who have fallen on tough times.

The program is based on income. A family of four, for example, can make up to $3,032 a month and qualify.

New Mexico figures show the average SNAP beneficiary in March received $296.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program, last year approved a New Mexico plan that allows people who make up to 165 percent of the federal poverty level to enroll in SNAP. The previous level was 130 percent.

The USDA acted after the state asked it to make it easier to get benefits, said state Human Services Department spokeswoman Betina Gonzales McCracken.

"Compared to other states, our SNAP participation is in the top four or top five," McCracken said. "But we know that there are still 33 percent (of eligible) families that qualify for the program who aren't enrolled."

New Mexico falls among the five poorest states.

Patricia Anders, an attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, said the state is lucky the program works the way it does because it meets demand when the demand rises. The program is funded entirely by the federal government.

"Every dollar spent in SNAP benefits actually generates $1.79 in total economic activity," Anders said. "So that one SNAP dollar is not just helping a family buy a meal, it's helping local grocers and other workers stay employed."

Republicans in the U.S. House have unveiled a budget that would sharply cut food aid for the poor.

The 2012 budget resolution passed Friday by the House would replace direct federal funding for SNAP with block grants to states. The intent is to encourage states to limit enrollment and curb the program's $80 billion annual cost.

The state doesn't yet know possible effects, but it has the potential to limit New Mexico's ability to enroll additional beneficiaries in times of greater need, McCracken said.

In July 2007, SNAP beneficiaries in New Mexico received $20.5 million. In February 2011, they received $52.1 million.

Gloria Goodman, a mother of two teenagers, said things went bad for her and her husband, who was in the home-building business, as the economy soured.

"We couldn't afford our mortgage. And so everything ended up going onto a lot of credit cards, which got us into major debt," Goodman said. "We couldn't sell our house. It was on the market for a couple of years. So it was just putting us deeper and deeper into the hole."

Finally, they filed for bankruptcy and found themselves needing to make it one week with $3 to their name, Goodman said.

They signed up for SNAP.

Goodman went back to school and now works at a spa. Her husband is back in business, and she said the family doesn't need SNAP anymore.