For Puerto Rico, the disasters keep coming


March 7, 2019

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of blog posts about Puerto Rico and its nutrition assistance crisis.

A new crisis is sweeping across Puerto Rico. Unlike Hurricanes Maria and Irma, however, this one is entirely man-made.

More than one out of every three Puerto Ricans receives benefits from the island’s Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP), the island’s version of SNAP (once known as food stamps). Earlier this month, however, recipients began receiving sharp cuts in benefits because Congress has failed to extend assistance that was first approved as part of post-hurricane recovery.

In a blog post published Wednesday, March 6, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities detailed just how acute the cuts are:

“A 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 continental U.S.] would receive from SNAP. Now, 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 benefits for March drop by 42 percent to $112.”

Back in 2017, following the devastating hurricanes, Congress and the Trump Administration approved $1.27 billion to bolster Puerto Rico’s NAP, in addition to the $1.8 billion in annual funding the program regularly receives from the federal government. But Puerto Rican officials have warned for months that the additional $1.27 billion was insufficient to respond to Puerto Rico’s incomplete recovery from Hurricane Maria. They requested a $600 million appropriation, which would allow the U.S. island to maintain its current level of NAP benefits through September.

In January, House Democrats passed a $14.2 billion disaster aid bill that included the $600 million in NAP funding (along with relief for other states hit by hurricanes, floods, and wildfires). But the White House, not exactly a fan of disaster recovery in Puerto Rico, objected. It called the emergency NAP funding “excessive and unnecessary.”

“There is no indication that households need ongoing support at this time or that Puerto Rico requires additional time to return to normal NAP operations,” the White House said in a statement.

Ultimately, legislators failed to include emergency disaster relief in the spending bill that re-opened government in January because of the President’s intransigence over this small amount for Puerto Rico. And now, the 1.35 million low-income residents of Puerto Rico who qualify for NAP – U.S. citizens, by the way – are paying the price.

One proposal for disaster relief has been introduced in the Senate by Senators Perdue (R-GA) and Isakson (R-GA). The $13.6 billion package includes $610 billion for Puerto Rico’s nutrition assistance, as well as funds to cover crop and other damage from hurricanes and flooding in states including Alabama, Georgia, North and South Carolina, and Florida. Now, as Alabama struggles to recover from a massive tornado that killed 23 people, Senate Appropriations Chair Richard Shelby (R-AL) is working with other appropriators to increase the disaster funding, while continuing to include help for Puerto Rico. Senator Shelby has expressed willingness to get a bill to the President before Congress leaves for its March recess on March 18. If you want to help, please call the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121 and ask to speak with your senator. Here’s a simple message you can deliver. Urge her or him to support extended NAP funding as well as other needed disaster relief for Puerto Rico!

disaster assistance
Food and Nutrition
Puerto Rico