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POLICY INSIGHT
BEYOND THE NUMBERS

Northern Mariana Islands to Receive Substantial Additional Food Assistance in a Move Toward Parity With Rest of U.S.

Under a new memorandum of understanding (MOU), food assistance available to the U.S. territory of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) will grow much closer to parity with the rest of the United States. Low-income residents of the CNMI who need help buying enough food cannot participate in our nation’s primary food assistance program, SNAP. Rather, the CNMI has limited funding for a more modest program that can’t meet the needs of all residents. The changes included in the MOU — announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and leaders of the CNMI, including Congress member Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan and Governor Ralph DLG Torres — will substantially increase the reach of critical food assistance in the CNMI, beginning this month.

The CNMI has high levels of poverty. A 2016 USDA-funded study of the feasibility of including the CNMI in SNAP reported that more than half of the CNMI’s population had income below the federal poverty level, and median household income in the CNMI was less than half the median income in Guam, its nearest neighbor, and in the United States as a whole. Nonetheless, like Puerto Rico and American Samoa, instead of participating in SNAP, the CNMI since the early 1980s has operated a program for food assistance with a cap on funding. This has required the territory to set eligibility and benefit levels far lower than in the states, the District of Columbia, and Guam and the Virgin Islands, the two territories that participate in SNAP.

The annual CNMI block grant has been held constant at $12 million for many years. Due to the low funding, only a little more than half of the families who would be eligible under SNAP rules have been able to receive help in the CNMI. Recognizing the inadequacy of the block grant, the 2014 farm bill authorized the 2016 feasibility study and provided an additional $30.5 million in increased funding for 2016 through 2018. Federal policymakers subsequently provided additional funding in 2019, 2020, and 2021 to address increased need from disasters and the pandemic, which the CNMI used to temporarily raise eligibility and benefit levels somewhat. These changes did not provide a permanent solution or benefits fully comparable to SNAP, however. Given funding uncertainty, the CNMI cut eligibility and benefits for several months at the beginning of fiscal year 2020.

The new MOU, which releases $30 million authorized by the American Rescue Plan, will increase benefit amounts, expand eligibility, and create a contingency reserve fund so the CNMI will be able to respond to unanticipated needs. The CNMI’s maximum benefits for its Nutrition Assistance Program will match the level used in Guam, in recognition of high food prices in the CNMI; in Saipan, the capital and largest island, maximum benefits for a family of three will rise to $969 per month, a 23 percent increase from fiscal year 2021 levels and a much larger increase from the levels that the basic $12 million CNMI block grant would support.

In addition, the program’s income limits will rise to the SNAP gross income limit of 130 percent of poverty, up from the current threshold of 100 percent of the federal poverty level. As a result, some 2,000 additional people may be able to participate, Congress member Sablan reports.

The Biden Administration also increased the funding for the block grant by about $18 million, to $30 million in its budget request for fiscal year 2022, which the House and Senate appropriations bills also include, and which Congress will turn to finalizing soon.

Though food assistance in the CNMI remains in need of some changes to achieve full parity with SNAP, the changes announced last week will go a long way toward raising eligibility and benefits to match the rest of the U.S. and will provide much-needed aid to feed individuals and families in the CNMI.

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