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Earthquakes Highlight Puerto Rico’s Inadequate Access to Nutrition Assistance

Puerto Rico’s ongoing wait for federal policymakers to provide vital emergency funding in the aftermath of recent powerful earthquakes highlights a larger problem: Puerto Rico receives capped annual funding for its Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP) that doesn’t enable the program to meet increased need, and disaster nutrition assistance for the Commonwealth must go through an often contentious legislative process in Washington.

As in the aftermath of the devastating 2017 hurricanes, residents of Puerto Rico are once again waiting for the President and Congress to approve vital emergency funding, including disaster nutrition assistance. The House this week will consider a disaster relief package, but congressional approval remains unclear and the White House has threatened to veto it. In the meantime, roughly 250,000 people living in federally designated disaster areas who participate in NAP remain without critical post-disaster aid.

The earthquakes have hit some of Puerto Rico’s poorest areas (see map). The 16 municipalities in the federal disaster declaration are home to roughly half a million people and have poverty rates close to or above 50 percent, ranging from 48 percent in Villalba to 64 percent in Guánica. Aftershocks will continue for many months if not years, the U.S. Geological Survey projects, and there’s still a high possibility of another shock as large as the 6.4 earthquake on January 7.

Puerto Rico residents wouldn’t be waiting for policymakers to act if NAP worked like SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that operates in every state and in territories like the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam.

SNAP provides benefits to all eligible residents, so its budget expands and contracts automatically to meet changing needs. But NAP Is a block grant under which Puerto Rico gets a capped amount of about $2 billion a year to provide benefits to very poor households — which likely isn’t enough to meet the nutritional needs of eligible beneficiaries and also is below what Puerto Rico households would receive if NAP operated like SNAP. NAP also lacks a vital mechanism known as Disaster SNAP, which lets states and participating territories quickly offer added, targeted food assistance following a natural disaster.

The President and Congress provided roughly $1.27 billion in additional NAP funding in October of 2017 after Hurricanes Irma and María but, after María, it took 180 days for the first disaster nutrition assistance funds to be disbursed in Puerto Rico, according to a recent audit by the Agriculture Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG). In the neighboring Virgin Islands, which were also struck by the hurricane but operate under SNAP, short-term disaster nutrition assistance began flowing in just 47 days.

Puerto Rico has limited or no access to the full benefits of programs such as SNAP, Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit. These programs should apply more fully in Puerto Rico, precisely where poverty — and, more recently, natural disasters — have struck harder than most other U.S. areas. (Puerto Rico’s poverty rate of 43 percent in 2018 far exceeds the overall U.S. figure.)

The OIG audit recommended giving the Commonwealth the authority to operate its own disaster nutrition assistance program after a disaster, just as the states and other qualifying territories can. That’s a good first step. But it wouldn’t solve the larger issue that NAP can’t help everyone who qualifies, as SNAP can, which is key to providing long-term support for people affected by disasters, such as those who lost their jobs and need help buying food during the recovery.