Kaziah Mraz, 34, has done everything society expects of a responsible citizen. She works full time, while attending college, raising two children, paying off a mortgage and trying to maintain her credit score.
And yet when she hit a rough spot, society—represented by the New Mexico Human Services Department—told her it couldn’t help. When she broke into tears, society had a security guard escort her away.
“I pretty much hit my breaking point,” Mraz says. “I’m not trying to take advantage of the system; I just want some help while I get through this situation. At this point, if I was 30 pounds skinnier, I would go to Albuquerque and strip.”
SFR reviewed Mraz’ benefits application, pay stubs and bills. The stack of papers reads like an epitaph to the middle class.
Gross pay: $2,300 a month. Take-home pay: $1,800 a month. Mortgage payment: $1,480. That leaves $340 a month to feed herself, two kids and a Chihuahua, gas up her ’94 Toyota and keep the lights on.
“All our money is going to the bank, bills and food,” Mraz says. She and her ex, Heath Parra, divorced in July, but he just moved back in to help with the mortgage—something Mraz says she wouldn’t accept were it not for the bills. They’ve already cashed out their 401(k) plans and racked up thousands in credit card debt to pay down the mortgage.
Their jointly owned $213,000 home is a comfortable but crowded place in Tierra Contenta, an “affordable housing” development south of Airport Road. Hoping to cut the monthly payment, they applied for relief under the federal Making Home Affordable program. Charter Bank rejected their application. (Charter’s profits increased from $7 million to $12 million in the past fiscal year, though its lending declined.)
Mraz applied for food stamps before and after the divorce, but was told she made too much money. The second time, her caseworker—a “really compassionate” woman—encouraged Mraz to apply again in October, when the federal government readjusted its poverty guidelines.
When Mraz showed up a third time, she brought her stack of checks and bills, as instructed. But a young male clerk summarily rejected her application based on her gross pay alone. “I made $28 or $30 over. I was like, ‘Look at my checks!’ He said, ‘Ma’am, we don’t go by that,’” Mraz says.
She signed a paper withdrawing her application. “At that point I was bawling,” she says. “They sent security over because I was raising my voice. I just wanted to know why can’t [they] take anything into consideration.”
Mraz doesn’t come off as hysteria-prone. “I work in the ER, and I know how to talk to people calmly,” she says.
The experience taught her something, though: “The system is fucked. It’s not there to help people who are really trying to help themselves.”
As of June, 308,416 New Mexicans were getting food stamps—a 30 percent increase in a year’s time. HSD says 71 percent of those eligible actually claim benefits.
There are thousands more who are struggling but, like Mraz, deemed ineligible. States are allowed to award food stamps to anyone making up to twice as much as the federal poverty level. But New Mexico sets its cutoff at 70 percent lower than that, now $1,984 a month for a family of three.
“Not only are we letting more families go hungry, we’re missing out on federal dollars and letting our state fall deeper into recession,” Patricia Anders, staff attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, says. “Some would say it’s a lack of leadership.”
HSD Income Support Division Director Fred Sandoval did not return SFR’s message.
In January, state House Speaker Ben Luján introduced a measure asking HSD to expand food stamp eligibility. The bill died in committee, but Luján believes it would have passed had senators gotten to vote on it. He’s also aware HSD could have expanded eligibility independently. “We were just trying to push them a little bit harder,” Luján says.
As she searches vainly for help, Mraz has considered abandoning the house, credit be damned. But she hates to give up what she worked so hard for. “I just keep thinking somewhere I’m going to get a break,” she says.