Guadalupe's vice mayor is pressing for a recall of Mayor Rebecca Jimenez after she pleaded guilty to misrepresenting her household income to obtain food stamps.
Vice Mayor Andrew Sanchez blasted Jimenez for bringing the small town of about 6,000 "negative media attention by her choices.
“Mayor Jimenez holds others in scrutiny with the law but fails to maintain her own ethical standards,” he said.
Jimenez, who has led the city off and on since 2007, was sentenced Friday to pay more than $10,000 and serve a term of unsupervised probation. She pleaded guilty to criminal possession of a forgery device, a class 1 misdemeanor, according to the Arizona Department of Economic Security. In exchange, the state dropped charges of fraud, theft, and unlawful use of food stamps.
The mayor collected benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, unofficially known as food stamps, from July 2011 to February 2013.
During that time, she was living with her children's father. However, on five different occasions, she made "various false statements" about his residence so his salary was not considered when her application was processed, officials said. Had she properly reported his income, she would not have been eligible to receive benefits.
Jimenez, who famously faced off with Sheriff Joe Arpaio over his controversial immigration enforcement policies in 2008, denied any wrongdoing. In an e-mailed statement, she said she pleaded guilty on the advice of her attorney.
“When the state of Arizona points its finger at you and claims you did wrong, most people tend to take the most risk-adverse path,” she said. “I feel for all the people in our community who are wrongly charged and forced to make decision that they not truly agree with.”
Her case highlights what some advocates for the poor argue is a mismatch between eligibility requirements and the changing structure of the American family.
Federal welfare programs, like SNAP, heavily favor single women and children. But, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 40 percent of low-education, single mothers cohabit with a partner who is involved in raising her children.
While research shows between 23 percent and 34 percent of single women who use government welfare programs also receive cash assistance from a boyfriend, a partner’s income does not factor in the mother's eligibility unless she is married or, as in Jimenez’s case, lives with the children’s biological father. Perhaps as a result, Kathryn Edin, a professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, reported that hiding the identity of the biological father from the government has become a common cost-saving strategy among low-income single mothers.
Kristen Harknett, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, said the system creates “reverse incentives” that punish women for getting married or maintaining a live-in relationship with the biological father of their child.
“When we have a system where families have to be creative and bend the rules to get by, being stricter feels punitive or harsh,” Harknett said.
Still, Timothy Jeffries, director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security, condemned Jimenez’s conduct.
“There is no legal and ethical justification for someone to steal from our human-services system,” he stated. “Lies, deceit, and stealing from those often in dire need of assistance are utterly reprehensible and will not be tolerated.”
Nationwide, about 3 percent of SNAP benefit dollars were issued to ineligible households or to eligible households in excessive amounts in 2014, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The error rate increased slightly from 2013, when improper payouts were at an all-time low, but has declined significantly since the 1990s, when the government overpaid by more than 8 percent.
“Very few” of these cases represent fraud, however, wrote Dottie Rosenbaum, a senior fellow with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who specializes in government welfare programs.
“By its very nature, fraud is difficult to measure accurately, but the overwhelming majority of SNAP errors appear to result from honest mistakes by recipients, eligibility workers, data-entry clerks, or computer programmers,” Rosenbaum wrote. “States report that half of all overpayments and almost 90 percent of underpayments in recent years were their fault; most others resulted from innocent errors by households.”
Arizona Inspector General Juan J. Arcellana said authorities will “bring to justice” anyone who seeks to misuse public funds.
“Fraud on any level is unacceptable,” he said in a news release. “As stewards of taxpayer funds, our responsibility is to see they are used appropriately and responsibly.”