CHN: Nutrition Assistance Cuts Begin for 1.35 million Puerto Ricans

Wednesday, March 20 marks the 18-month anniversary of Hurricane Maria making landfall in Puerto Rico, and the island is still trying to recover. The latest impediment has to do with food aid. After Maria hit (and Irma before that), Congress temporarily increased funds for Puerto Rico’s Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP). NAP is the island’s more limited version of SNAP/food stamps.

Unfortunately, the emergency increase has run out. In early March, half of the 1.35 million Puerto Ricans who receive benefits under NAP began to see their benefits cut. The other half of the 1.35 million NAP recipients will see cuts beginning this Friday, March 22.

Puerto Rico’s NAP troubles are, in part, due to the way Congress decided to fund the program. Unlike SNAP in the states and other territories besides Puerto Rico, NAP does not automatically expand in the event of a natural disaster or economic downturn. Rather, Puerto Rico’s NAP relies on a fixed block grant that can only increase to meet need if Congress appropriates additional funds.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Puerto Rican family of four with no or very low cash income, for example, would have received the maximum NAP benefit of $649 last month – the same amount that a similar household in the states would receive from SNAP. Now, however, this household’s monthly benefit will drop by 37 percent to $410, which is the pre-disaster benefit level. An older adult who lives alone and received $194 last month will see his or her benefits drop by 42 percent to $112.

In order to restore the benefits under the emergency increase, advocates say $600 million is needed – and that will only take the extra benefits to Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year. As reported in the Feb. 14 Human Needs Report, a disaster aid package was included in the FY19 spending bill (H.R. 268) passed by the House. However, it was not included in the final FY19 spending bill passed by Congress in February because President Trump opposed the food aid and other assistance for Puerto Rico.

At the end of February, Sens. David Perdue (R-GA) and Johnny Isakson (R-GA) introduced a disaster aid package (S. 572) that would provide $610 million for Puerto Rico’s NAP benefits, along with other aid for victims of other natural disasters across several states and territories. The measure reportedly has bipartisan support, now including the support of the White House. However, in early March, Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) announced that a separate disaster aid package was in the works, negotiating additional needs such as crop losses in various states and tornado damage in Alabama, as well as efforts to include modest relief beyond the NAP aid in Puerto Rico. According to Roll Call, an initial vote on a disaster aid package could happen in the Senate on March 26. The exact contents of the measure the chamber will take up is unknown, but funding for Puerto Rico reportedly remains a sticking point in the negotiations.

Puerto Rico