New Mexico immigrant families eligible for cash-assistance pilot

Feb. 8—Hundreds of undocumented immigrants and families with mixed residency status across New Mexico will receive $6,000 over a 12-month period as part of a pilot program studying the effects of cash assistance.

Proponents of the pilot — developed through a coalition of advocacy organizations — hope the monthly $500 cash infusions will fill income gaps for families left out of federal coronavirus pandemic relief programs, such as unemployment aid and stimulus checks. The initiative is largely funded by the national W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the California-based nonprofit UpTogether.

"We really want to understand how this cash assistance is impacting families who have been excluded from these other programs many of us have benefited from since the beginning of the pandemic," said Antonio Granillo, with the Albuquerque-based nonprofit Partners in Community Action, during a news conference Monday on the initiative.

The coalition launching the program, the New Mexico Economic Relief Working Group, formed in April 2020 and includes immigrant-led nonprofit Somos Un Pueblo Unido and the child welfare group New Mexico Voices For Children. The network has helped distribute $24 million in cash assistance to low-income families and those with a mix of undocumented residents and legal residents or U.S. citizens.

"We knew from the very beginning immigrants were going to be excluded from cash assistance," Somos Un Pueblo Unido Director Marcela Díaz said.

Families eligible for mainstream programs to soften the blow of unemployment and lost wages in the early era of the coronavirus pandemic earned up to $50,000 in cash, she said. "That was crucial income for those families to survive the pandemic but also crucial for local economies in New Mexico. We saw that there were holes in other forms of safety net programs that could be filled by cash assistance."

The New Mexico Economic Relief Working Group released a study last month on 1,000 Hispanic families in the state, which found the coronavirus pandemic disproportionately hurt the economic standing and employment status of Hispanic women, rural residents and Spanish speakers. Twenty-eight percent of those surveyed earned $20,000 or less in 2020, and 60 percent had less than $1,000 saved for emergencies.

The coalition is asking state lawmakers to allocate $15.6 million this legislative session in cash assistance to families who didn't receive other pandemic aid.

Families eligible for the new pilot program must have at least one child or an adult dependent. Applicants also must have previously received financial assistance during the pandemic from the New Mexico Human Services Department or a city or county program.

Of the 330 families who will be randomly selected to participate, 75 each will come from Bernalillo, Santa Fe and Doña Ana counties. The remaining 105 will be selected from Rio Arriba, McKinley, Curry, Roosevelt, San Juan, Chaves, Lea, Luna, Grant and Hidalgo counties.

More than 2,000 families already have applied for the program, which will start handing out the $500 monthly payments in March, either through direct deposit or a cash card.

Applications were set to close Monday, but the deadline has been extended to Friday.

Organizers hope if the pilot program produces successful outcomes, more permanent state funding for the initiative could be used to extend it.

New Mexico Voices for Children will collect data on the results of the study, largely by surveying participants, Executive Director Amber Wallin said.

Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber voiced his support for the initiative at Monday's news conference and said poverty is often a "default setting" for New Mexicans that could be changed with more cash assistance.

Webber recently joined a coalition of mayors across the nation who are testing a similar project, and in June the city received a $500,000 grant from the group, Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, to make monthly payments of up to $400 to a group of working parents attending Santa Fe Community College.

Participants received their fourth payment in January.

Mayors for a Guaranteed Income was started by former Stockton, Calif., Mayor Michael Tubbs, who distributed $500 a month for two years to 125 residents, beginning in 2019. Data on the project is set for release later this year, but a short report on its effect in the first year showed most participants spent most of the cash surplus on food and utility bills — and less than 1 percent on tobacco and alcohol.

Full-time employment of participants went from 28 percent to 40 percent within the year, the report said.

The study also detailed changes in mental health.

"We get locked into a cycle of defeat," Webber said. "There's no doubt in my mind the way to interrupt that cycle, to break that cycle, is through a guaranteed basic income."