Puerto Rico: A recovery in reverse?
Editor’s note: this is one in a continuing series of blog posts about Puerto Rico and its nutrition assistance crisis. Previous posts can be found here and here. More information can be found in CHN’s Human Needs Report.
For the Puerto Rican coastal community of Loiza, the hits just keep coming.
First there was Hurricane Irma, which sideswiped the eastern part of the island, where Loiza is located, late at night on Sept. 4, 2017. Not even two weeks later, Hurricane Maria came ashore, scoring an even more direct hit than Irma, and once again, Loiza absorbed the worst of the storm’s fury.
Loiza Mayor Julia Nazario had not even been mayor for one year when the hurricanes hit. She took office on a platform to reduce gun violence; that she has done. But now her community faces a new threat: it was one of the least affluent communities on the island, with 60 percent of its residents qualifying for Puerto Rico’s Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP), which is the island’s version of SNAP.
Now those benefits are threatened; earlier this month, NAP recipients began receiving fewer benefits because Congress has failed to provide $600 million to extend additional aid that was approved in the wake of Maria and Irma. Unlike SNAP, which responds automatically when a disaster increases need, Puerto Rico must depend on Congress to increase funding. So far, despite bipartisan support for providing the aid, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has refused to put a disaster relief bill on the Senate floor. The cuts affect 1.35 million Puerto Ricans – more than one-third of the island’s residents qualify for the benefit.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 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.
In an interview with Voices for Human Needs, Mayor Nazario explains that her community will be more affected than others by the cuts. Unemployment, she says, is twice as high in Loiza as it is across the island. The community is disproportionately young – while much of Puerto Rico has a larger population of seniors, Loiza is primarily comprised of “kids and young people.”
What would Mayor Nazario tell Congress if she could?
“I would like them to know that our people make responsible use of these benefits,” Mayor Nazario said through an interpreter. “It is about time Congress look at our people as humans with needs. Because we do have a large proportion of small children and young kids, it is particularly important to us. We have been making adjustments for a long time now. If we have to make more, it is going to be very hard.”
As it happens, Mayor Nazario will have the opportunity to tell some members of Congress those very words. Members of the House Natural Resources Committee, led by Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-AZ), leave for Puerto Rico this Friday, March 15. On Sunday, they will be hosted by Mayor Nazario, who will lead the congressional delegation on a tour of her home town.
One of the things Committee members might learn on their fact-finding mission is how NAP benefits help compensate for the lasting damaging Hurricane Maria (and to a lesser extent Irma) left behind.
Amanda Rivera is executive director of the Instituto Desarrollo Juventud; translated, that means the Youth Development Institute. The organization is Puerto Rico’s lead child advocacy group, and it has conducted extensive research into poverty and other problems and challenges Puerto Rican children face.
“We recently commissioned a study on the impact of Hurricane Maria on children and their families, which showed that a year after the hurricane, a great proportion of the lowest income families were still struggling to make ends meet,” Rivera told Voices for Human Needs. “For example, 38 percent of families earning an income of $15,000 or less a year said they were facing difficulties buying groceries. Taking away these benefits at a time when Puerto Rican families have not fully recovered would plain and simple mean that there will not be food on the table in some homes.”
Rivera adds that “families with children and youth need to be a priority in the recovery process.”
“The island’s entire recovery and sustainability hinges upon this population,” she says. “The inability of policymakers to articulate a clear strategy for breaking the cycle of poverty and creating opportunities for children and youth to thrive has led to a 35 percent reduction in our child population over the last ten years. In addition, the majority of our children and youth – 58 percent – live in poverty. Our research findings suggest these trends could be exacerbated as a result of Hurricane Maria, leaving the island with even less children and young families, and even more poverty among these. However, the hurricane recovery process could present an opportunity to turn around these trends if resources are invested effectively and with these principles in mind.”
Rivera’s recommendation? “From the federal standpoint, we need to facilitate policy frameworks that support low-income families with children and youth, especially those that are working and still struggling to make ends meet. Extending NAP so that benefits provide more security in this process, and authorizing the extension of the Child Tax Credit to families of 1 and 2 children are policies that can help curb what could otherwise be a downward trajectory.”
Dr. Anayra Tua is the CEO of Proyecto Nacer, a group that serves low-income teen parents and their families. She also sits on the board of the Child Welfare League of America, a CHN member. She says many of her group’s clients are attending school or engaging in other activities to improve their futures, but she worries their plans might be derailed by the NAP cuts.
“Our teen parents wonder if attending school or other services which will increase their chances at a better socioeconomic position tomorrow is not doable at this time, because they need to seek a job to provide food for their children,” Dr. Tua said.
Like Rivera and Mayor Nazario, Dr. Tua predicts higher levels of migration unless Congress acts to speed up – not slow down – economic recovery in light of Hurricane Maria. Nearly 500,000 left Puerto Rico for the mainland between 2008 and 2018, meaning the number of Puerto Ricans now living stateside actually eclipses the 3.3 million residents who remain on the island.
“I think that as more and more families are deciding to move out from Puerto Rico into certain states, Congress will increase their understanding of the impact of these cuts and unfair distribution of resources between Puerto Rico and what other jurisdictions have, and this will result in their having to adjust their decision-making process in the future,” Dr. Tua said.
For now, Tua and other Puerto Ricans interviewed by Voices for Human Needs said people on the island feel powerless.
“Our families are widely aware that NAP cuts can occur, mainly because the Secretary of the Department of Families has been a great communicator and advocate to retain such benefits,” Dr. Tua said. “Even though our teen families are widely aware of this threat, they feel powerless to be able to stop it or ask Congress not to cut this current life-saving and stabilizing provision.”