New Mexico has run into a time-consuming snag in its attempt to require most able-bodied adults to work for long-term food stamps.

After a legal battle with several advocacy groups, New Mexico’s Human Services Department announced Thursday that it would restart the rulemaking process, delaying the reinstatement of the work requirement, originally slated for November 1, by several months.

“Once you start giving things away for free, it’s hard to pull it back,” says Paul Gessing, president of the New Mexico–based Rio Grande Foundation.

Though 1996 welfare-reform legislation established work requirements, it also created waivers for states with crisis-level unemployment rates or a dearth of jobs. During the recession, and at the behest of the Obama administration, most states took advantage of the waiver — and most have been slow to reinstate the work requirement after the recession ended.

Right now, an estimated 78,000 non-elderly New Mexico residents continue to collect food stamps for longer than three months, even though they aren’t disabled and don’t have children younger than six. But Republican governor Susana Martinez and her administration sought to change this, requiring such able-bodied beneficiaries to work, volunteer, or receive job training for 20 hours a week. 

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and other advocacy groups filed suit last week, claiming the state had not followed the proper rulemaking procedures. A judge ruled in their favor on Halloween, halting the reinstatement of the work requirement; after this ruling, the state opted to begin the process over.

Gail Evans, legal director at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, an advocacy group that was a party to the suit, says she’s happy about the outcome. “It’s not nitpicking,” Evans says, to expect New Mexico to follow rulemaking procedures, adding that the state had released impartial and sometimes contradictory information about how the work requirement would be enforced.

“We’re opposed to the work requirement, but that is a separate question,” Evans says. “The first question is, are they going to follow the law when they set up the work requirement, because we will hold them to that, and if they don’t follow the law the second time, we’ll sue them again. And [second], if they follow the law, and they get their work requirement in place legally, then, sure, we’re going to be opposed to those work requirements.”

But Matt Kennicott, a spokesperson for the New Mexico DHS who had earlier called the lawsuit “baseless,” tells National Review Online that advocacy groups are seeking in whatever way they can to prevent the reinstatement of the work requirement.

“The waiver was supposed to be temporary in nature because of the economic downturn, but it looks as though a lot of states and a lot of advocacy groups are hoping that it stays permanent, so the work requirement will not go back into effect,” Kennicott says. “We wanted to lift it so we could help people get the training and education and resources they need to find jobs, and to lift them up.”

New Mexico excluded, 28 states continue to waive the work requirement altogether, and 13 have waived them in some portions of the state.

— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.