Las Cruces Sun-News: Sen. aims to counter high poverty in NM

Proposed bill would streamline funding lines, proponents say

By:  Diana Alba Soular

LAS CRUCES >> U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-NM, visited Las Cruces on Monday, promoting a new proposal he says will help counter child and family poverty in New Mexico.

Heinrich said he was gathering feedback for what will become a federal bill called the Two Generation Economic Empowerment Act. The goal, he said, is to streamline federal processes to allow government agencies and nonprofits to cohesively tackle the problems that feed the cycle of poverty.

"We realized a number of years ago that if you don't deal with the challenges that a family is having as a whole, then your efforts are really severely limited," he said. The goal of the legislation is "finding ways to make all the separate things that we do at the federal level have more impact, but also coordinating better with local nonprofits, with all of the different entities that are trying to address child poverty, and being able to make a cohesive whole."

Heinrich said it wouldn't be an expansion of existing programs, but rather use existing resources more efficiently by helping parents and children together, not singling out one over the other.

Big needs

Attending the meeting were representatives from several nonprofit agencies, including the Community Action Agency of Southern New Mexico, a multi-program social services provider; Casa de Peregrinos emergency food bank, based in Las Cruces; and AVANCE New Mexico, which seeks to educate mothers of young children and expectant mothers. Several people said they wind up serving the same populations of low-income residents throughout the county. And they often feel compelled to get involved in providing services that aren't directly tied to their organization's express mission, mainly because an individual's or family's needs are so great.

Casa de Peregrinos Executive Director Lorenzo Alba Jr. told the group the number of people struggling with hunger throughout Doña Ana County outpaces the available resources. He told of a woman he met in La Mesa who nearly started crying after seeing the size of the emergency food boxes and "realizing that wasn't going to be enough." He said he started talking to her and learned she and her husband had unexpectedly had four grandchildren move in with them after a daughter had been arrested.

"It was just her and her husband living pretty nicely on a small retirement, Social Security, and all of the sudden they have four children to feed," he said. "There's just nothing for them to fall back on. We made arrangements, and we were able to help her. But these are just some of the things that happen."

Alba said the agency is looking for ways to make an impact on families' lives "other than just give them food."

A yearly report — called the KIDS COUNT Data Book — by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, last month ranked New Mexico 49th in the nation in child well-being. The report, based on 2013 data, found that 31 percent of New Mexico's children are at or below the poverty line.

Draft form

Heinrich's bill, which is still in draft form and hasn't been released publicly yet, would set up an "Interagency Council on Multigenerational Poverty" that would be tasked with aligning and linking "fragmented systems and funding streams, resulting in holistic approaches that simultaneously address the needs of parents and children." It would be made up of designees from a spectrum of federal agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Labor, according to an info sheet from Heinrich's office.

Elizabeth Hill, a member of Heinrich's staff, said the proposed interagency council is a key part of the legislation.

"Just by getting them talking together, we're hoping there's going to be some better coordination," she said.

But Hill said the measure also would lead to streamlined application and reporting requirements for accessing federal grants.

Tom Intorcio, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-NM, said because the bill hasn't been introduced, "our office is unable to review the draft text and cannot make a comment at this time."

Still, Intorcio said Pearce has "always focused on bottom-up solutions to build a healthy economy — one that will empower New Mexicans, and all Americans, to seek new opportunities and achieve a better life. He will continue to fight for pro-growth policies that provide opportunity for all who look for work so that they can secure career-path jobs and financial independence."

System improvements

Cindy Corona, executive director of the Las Cruces-based Ocotillo Institute for Social Justice, said her organization attempts to work with a range of local nonprofits and has heard from a number of them that "no matter what your mission is," their personnel "end up being the case manager," referring to social service workers who deal with a client's needs comprehensively.

"Even we do, and we don't provide direct service," Corona said.

But Corona said she's setting out to determine how overall systems can be improved to counter poverty, such as how to link funding pools and access to the services, so "that person needing these services is only going through one system."

"I think of: How do we streamline enrollment into these systems?" she said. "Where do you break down these things? How do you collaborate for outreach? And how do you collectively benchmark what's going on to see where improvements are?"

Corona told Heinrich she's "excited about what your legislation could do" because it could help get rid of barriers at the federal level, that in turn could lead to fewer barriers at the state level and nonprofits.

Heinrich's staff said the bill would give more flexibility to local agencies and nonprofits to create innovative models to address poverty.

Heinrich said input from Monday could lead to further changes in the proposed legislation.

"We're very open to ideas," he said.

A lengthy process

Alba said he likes the idea of encouraging more collaboration among nonprofits. "In our community, it's starting to happen more and more," he said. For instance, if his group shared a client database with the Community Action Agency, it would create more efficiency in delivering services.

"It's essential because it saves you dollars," he said.

Still, Alba said that while the theory is great, achieving it in practice is "going to be a difficult one."

"It's a good start. It's just going to take some time," he said of the proposed bill.

Diana Alba Soular may be reached at 575-541-5443.