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When people are in the worst financial straits and apply for food stamps, federal law says they should get help in just seven days. Well, that wasn't happening in New Mexico. As Marisa Demarco reports from member station KUNM, government workers are blowing the whistle on the state-doctoring food stamp applications.
MARISA DEMARCO, BYLINE: Despite working as a home health aide 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.
KIMBERLY JONES: 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. They don't care if you eat or not.
DEMARCO: Jones applied for food stamps. She says the state workers 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.
JONES: When you take someone's food from them, they don't have anything, and that's really sad. And for them to take that away, it makes you feel like nothing.
DEMARCO: Documents show Jones didn't list any assets on her application. But somewhere along the line, someone changed the numbers, so her case file showed $150. That's enough to bump her out of the emergency help category. New Mexico has been under legal pressure for more than 20 years about how it doles out public assistance, including food stamps.
ANGELA DOMINGUEZ: I was asked to falsify applications. They taught me.
DEMARCO: Angela Dominguez works for New Mexico's Income Support Division which handles participants in the Food Stamps Program.
DOMINGUEZ: Nobody wanted to do it. It was wrong.
DEMARCO: Dominguez says she'd repeatedly pass a case file to a manager for review.
DOMINGUEZ: Suddenly it comes back, and it's not an emergency food stamp case anymore.
DEMARCO: 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.
DOMINGUEZ: It's a small community. 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.
DEMARCO: 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 it's been happening for years.
DOMINGUEZ: It's ridiculous. It's ridiculous that it's gone on this long and that nobody said anything.
DEMARCO: Nine employees, including Dominguez, took the stand in a recent federal court hearing to testify about fake assets being added to food stamps applications. 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.
SOVEREIGN HAGER: It cuts across that myth that the food stamp participants commit fraud.
DEMARCO: Sovereign Hager is one of the lawyers who took the state to court. She works with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.
HAGER: 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.
DEMARCO: 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, quote, "most fouled-up in the country." In the letter, state officials have outlined reforms, but the judge could put a third party in charge of processing food stamps applications in New Mexico. For NPR News, I'm Marisa Demarco in Albuquerque.
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