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Puerto Rico Nutrition Benefit Cuts Risk Food Insecurity, Show Block Grant’s Limits

Puerto Rico’s Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP) basic household benefits have shrunk significantly over the last three months — as the Commonwealth depleted emergency federal funding — which may make it harder for many households to afford the food they need amid COVID-19 and an uncertain economic recovery. As with previous benefit cuts, this latest reduction shows, yet again, the challenges of NAP’s block grant funding structure.

As unemployment soared across the country, including in Puerto Rico, the President and Congress enacted emergency NAP funding in two bills in March. The Commonwealth used it to serve the rapidly growing number of NAP participants, which rose from about 1.3 million in February to more than 1.5 million by August, as residents lost jobs and income and needed help buying food. The Commonwealth also raised benefits for all participants in May through July, matching regular Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit levels for many and helping to offset hardship. When this funding ran out, the Commonwealth cut benefits sharply for all households, with the average household’s monthly benefit dropping from about $323 in July to about $188 by October (or, by about 40 percent).

This benefit cut illustrates the problems with NAP’s block grant funding structure, through which the Commonwealth receives a fixed amount of federal funding each year. Puerto Rico must set benefit and eligibility levels that ensure that program costs stay within that rigid funding, rather than basing them on need. By contrast, SNAP, which is available in all states and some territories, bases its benefits on food costs, and its funding expands to provide benefits to all eligible people who apply. Because of NAP’s limited funding, most NAP participants receive lower benefits than they likely would under SNAP, often far lower — despite the very low incomes of NAP participants and evidence suggesting that food prices may be higher in Puerto Rico than in the rest of the United States.

And NAP can’t expand participation without federal action when more people need help buying food, such as after a natural disaster or during an economic crisis — at least, not without lowering benefits. SNAP, in contrast, grew by about 17 percent, or 6 to 7 million people, from February to August. (States also have been providing many SNAP households with additional emergency benefits since March or April and can continue to do so as long as there is both a state and federal public health emergency.)

Puerto Rico, which already had high rates of poverty and food insecurity and an economy that hasn’t fully recovered from a recession that began in 2006, has been hit hard by COVID-19. Its unemployment rate was 8.4 percent in September, up slightly from 8.3 percent in August, and it would be higher if the data included workers who are unemployed but classified as “employed not at work,” such as furloughed waitstaff. Mandatory nightly quarantines are still in place in the Commonwealth, and numerous businesses such as restaurants are allowed to operate only at no more than 30 percent capacity. COVID-19 cases began to rise dramatically again in October and hospitalizations are spiking. In response, the governor announced tighter restrictions and greater curfew enforcement, potentially driving more economic disruption.

These NAP cuts are concerning, but one bright spot is that the budget bill that the President and Congress enacted in September included Puerto Rico in Pandemic P-EBT, which replaces lost school meals for children learning virtually. The Agriculture Department should quickly work with Puerto Rico to implement this provision to get much-needed nutrition assistance to children, as many across the Commonwealth continue to experience hardship.