Welfare reform allowed states to choose how they provide assistance to the poor — or hardly provide it at all. In the rapidly changing Southwest, that has sometimes led to bizarre or impossible requirements for getting help.
The head of New Mexico’s child support enforcement agency this week called for the state to end its practice of intercepting child support payments and tax refunds headed to poor mothers and children — which the state claims as repayment to the government for welfare the moms received in the past — a practice revealed by ProPublica in an investigation this fall.
Betina McCracken, acting director of the New Mexico Child Support Enforcement Division, penned an op-ed Wednesday in the Santa Fe New Mexican that presses the state Legislature to let as much as $6.9 million a year in child support collected from fathers flow directly to their families instead of diverting it into government coffers.
The op-ed, co-authored by Kari Armijo, deputy Cabinet secretary of the state’s Human Services Department, argues that the Legislature should provide more funding to the agency so that it doesn’t have to balance its budget on the backs of poor parents — like Amberly Sanchez, whose story ProPublica highlighted in September.
Sanchez’s monthly welfare payment was cut in half because she wasn’t helping the state obtain child support from her child’s father.
Lawmakers are currently debating next year’s budget and will finalize it during a special session in January and February. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, has said that she supports this policy change and would sign it into law.
“We’re focused on the kids,” McCracken said in an interview. “We want them to grow up healthy and happy and just get to be kids. Making sure we get as much money to families as we can so that children are financially supported is half that battle.”
McCracken also noted that the proposed reform would affect families who have previously received public assistance, not ones currently in the program. She said that ending the practice for current welfare recipients would require more money from the Legislature than the agency is prepared to ask for at this time. But this change would benefit most of the families whose child support is being taken by the state.
ProPublica’s investigation found that if single mothers in New Mexico — which has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the U.S. — need help from the state, they first have to reveal who fathered their kids and the exact date that they got pregnant, among other deeply personal details. The state uses that information to pursue child support from the dads, and then it pockets much of the money as reimbursement for those welfare dollars, sharing a large portion with the federal government. This creates fissures within families and in some cases subjects women to abuse by their former partners.
The 1996 welfare reform law signed by then-President Bill Clinton encourages states to recoup money spent on public assistance by intercepting child support, and most states, including New Mexico, still do it.
More than $1.7 billion collected from fathers in 2020 was seized by federal and state governments as repayment for welfare given to mothers and children, according to the ProPublica investigation. Close to 3 million of the nation’s poorest families had child support taken from them last year, amid the pandemic, for this reason.
The potential reform in New Mexico is also the result of an advocacy effort led by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, as well as Democratic state legislator Angelica Rubio.
“I believe we can find the support we need in the Legislature,” Rubio said. “We’ll keep pushing.”