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Rescue Plan Will Help Puerto Rico’s COVID-19 Recovery, But Stronger Food Assistance Needed in Future

The American Rescue Plan Act includes $1 billion in funding for nutrition assistance for Puerto Rico and other territories that receive block grants for nutrition assistance instead of SNAP (formerly known as food stamps). This funding, along with other temporary nutrition assistance enacted in the last year, will help Puerto Rico meet its residents’ food needs in the coming months as it recovers from the COVID-19 crisis. Over the longer term, policymakers should address the inequity between the nutrition assistance that Puerto Rico receives through a capped block grant and what the territory would receive if it participated in SNAP.

Puerto Rico entered the pandemic after more than a decade of virtually uninterrupted economic decline coupled with devastating natural disasters and an ongoing bankruptcy process. Poverty levels are high: over half of children live in poverty, and in 2015, about one-third of adults reported difficulty affording adequate food and over one-fifth reported skipping meals or otherwise cutting back on food due to lack of resources. Yet residents of Puerto Rico lack access to the same assistance that is available to low-income people to meet their basic needs as in the 50 states. Since COVID-19 hit, many families have had even more difficulty meeting needs, as widespread loss of jobs and income left many families with few resources.

Puerto Rico’s Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP), a capped block grant Puerto Rico receives in lieu of SNAP, treats Puerto Rico inequitably compared to the states. While SNAP can expand to serve more people during an economic downturn, NAP cannot, without further lowering benefits. That funding structure means that funding constraints — not need — shape decisions about eligibility and benefit levels. Most NAP participants receive lower benefits than they would if they participated in SNAP, despite their very low incomes and evidence suggesting that food prices in Puerto Rico are comparable to, if not higher than, what they are in the states. Our new NAP resource pages have materials about the program in both English and Spanish.

The Families First Coronavirus Response and CARES Acts of March 2020 added $300 million in federal funding for the nutrition assistance block grants in Puerto Rico and the other territories that operate them, American Samoa and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. This funding allowed Puerto Rico to serve more NAP participants and temporarily boosted benefits from May through July 2020. (Policymakers have also temporarily boosted SNAP benefits through emergency allotments enacted in March 2020 in the Families First Act and a 15 percent increase to maximum benefits in the year-end COVID-19 relief bill and recent American Rescue Plan Act.)

Unfortunately, when the Families First and CARES Acts funding ran out, Puerto Rico needed to slash benefits for its 1.5 million NAP participants, resulting in a steep benefit cut of about 40 percent and lower benefit levels throughout the fall, when many were still likely having trouble affording food due to the economic impacts of COVID-19. Congress included $614 million for the nutrition block grants in those three territories in its December relief bill, and the American Rescue Plan Act includes $1 billion in additional nutrition funding for those block grants.

Puerto Rico also recently began issuing benefits to replace lost school meals for children learning virtually through the Pandemic-EBT (P-EBT) program. Puerto Rico was originally excluded from P-EBT, created in Families First. The October 2020 government funding bill included Puerto Rico in P-EBT, but the Agriculture Department only approved Puerto Rico to participate in January 2021. The American Rescue Plan Act extends this benefit through the summer, when food insecurity generally rises, and clarified that a provision expanding eligibility to certain children under age 6 applies in Puerto Rico.

With these new rounds of funding and P-EBT operating, Puerto Rico will be able to strengthen benefits for NAP participants for several months and help ensure that families with children missing meals in school and child care can afford food. For example, Puerto Rico has indicated that with the roughly $597 million in additional NAP funding the Commonwealth received in the December bill, NAP participants can receive benefits roughly equivalent to SNAP’s temporarily higher benefits for three to four months beginning in March 2021. But policymakers may need to approve more NAP funding in future legislation this year if the economy remains weak and low-income families continue to have trouble making ends meet.

The recent funding is critical to Puerto Rico’s recovery from the COVID-19 crises, but it’s a temporary solution to a long-standing problem. If Puerto Rico received adequate funding to help families meet their nutritional needs during both better economic times and crises, policymakers wouldn’t need to provide these temporary funding boosts, nor would NAP participants be as likely to face large swings in benefit levels. In the future, policymakers should give Puerto Rico adequate, stable nutrition assistance funding, such as creating an option for the Commonwealth to participate in SNAP and providing the needed resources to transition to the program.