‘Money for a wall…no food for the people’
Editor’s note: This is the second of a series of blog posts about Puerto Rico and its nutrition assistance crisis. This post is based on interviews that were conducted in Spanish; they subsequently were translated to English.
Waldemiro Velez Soto of San Juan, Puerto Rico didn’t know his family’s food rations were being cut.
Voices for Human Needs was the first to inform him that the nutrition assistance he and his family depend on was going to be lowered or possibly even taken away.
Velez Soto’s reaction over the long-distance telephone line was disbelief. His first response of “No, I didn’t know,” to impending cuts to Puerto Rico’s Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP) came out softly and was followed by complete silence.
Being the one to tell someone that the nutritional assistance they relied on would be cut if the federal government didn’t approve aid was not what I was expecting. The federal government has not only failed to provide necessary aid to Puerto Rico, but also failed to let these American citizens know that the aid they had been receiving was about to be cut.
Waldemiro Velez Soto and his family survive off of their NAP benefits. (NAP is Puerto Rico’s version of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.) With few jobs available in Puerto Rico, Velez Soto cannot earn enough for him and his family to survive. And based on our conversation, he is not the only Puerto Rican forced to live like this.
“Most people don’t have other options; this is a problem of health. Once the food they have is gone people will literally die of hunger,” he said.
If nutrition assistance is cut, Velez Soto did not know how he would feed himself or his family. “I would have to find it somehow, it’s ugly but it’s the reality.”
(Earlier this month, the cuts to NAP actually began, although statistics are not yet available regarding how many families have been affected. For background on this issue, go here.)
Velez Soto hears all about the proposed U.S. and Mexico border wall, but nothing about helping to alleviate Puerto Rico’s financial and hurricane-induced disasters. “It’s absurd that they say they have money for a wall, have millions for the military, but no food for the people,” he said.
He wants Congress to know, “They are forgetting that the priorities are the people, the priority is nourishment, education, health, safety.”
“There are still tons of houses with structural problems, tons of people that don’t have access to basic services,” he said. “It’s been multiple years since the hurricane. It’s a fault of respect. We are being treated like third-class citizens.”
“The federal government hasn’t done its job. We will lose our food. The way we are living is unsafe and oppressive.”
These are not personal issues. A society’s framework and infrastructure are built and maintained by its government. We see this in our interview with Rafael Rivera.
Rafael Rivera works for the central government. He doesn’t receive NAP, but almost 75 percent of the community he represents does. “The problem is there are no jobs and unemployment is really high and the government isn’t giving any job opportunities,” he told Voices for Human Needs.
Rivera has uncles, cousins, nephews, and other close family who receive NAP benefits. “Without NAP they wouldn’t have a way to buy things and feed themselves,” he said “Even with what they are given it doesn’t cover electrical bills, water bills, and other costs that can’t be paid for with just NAP.”
“Puerto Rico is the poorest national territory within the United States….in Puerto Rico they don’t have the option to look for employment opportunities, so it brings more people into poverty and people are having to live in the streets and beg in the streets for food.”
We reached out to these individuals because we knew that the citizens in Puerto Rico have a painful story to tell and no one is listening. This is not a budget or partisan issue; this is a human rights crisis.
The misery in Puerto Rico spiked when Hurricanes Maria and Irma hit, and it will continue to rise until the federal government sends the necessary aid – not just for nutrition assistance but for rebuilding and infrastructure and jobs and schools and all of the things the island needs to become whole again.