Senior Policy Analyst on Puerto Rico
March 1, 2019: This blog post has been updated with more recent information about the size of NAP benefit cuts and the number of people affected.
Some 1.4 million Puerto Rico residents will face deep cuts in food assistance or lose it entirely in March unless President Trump and Congress provide more funding for the Commonwealth’s Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP), which is Puerto Rico’s version of SNAP (food stamps). Policymakers can avert this “March cliff” by providing the needed funding in the disaster legislation they may consider this month in response to Hurricane Michael.
The funding shortfall reflects Puerto Rico’s ongoing struggle to recover from the devastation of Hurricanes Irma and María, as well as larger structural problems with NAP’s financing that policymakers eventually should fix.
The immediate problem is the March cliff. If not addressed, all 1.4 million people who participate in NAP, including more than 300,000 children, will experience steep benefits cuts of roughly 25 percent. And, as many as 230,000 of all participants could lose their eligibility entirely.
Governor Ricardo Rosselló has asked Congress for another $600 million in disaster NAP funding, which would enable the Commonwealth to maintain current NAP benefits for about six more months. The House-passed version of the supplemental disaster aid package includes the governor’s request. The Senate’s package, which hasn’t yet gone to the floor for consideration, doesn’t. Senator Rick Scott of Florida has offered an amendment adding the food aid to the Senate package.
The Administration, however, opposes the House package, calling the plan to provide ongoing disaster food aid to Puerto Rico “excessive and unnecessary.” Governor Rosselló, however, is trying to help his most vulnerable residents, who are U.S. citizens, meet their basic food needs while Puerto Rico continues to recover from disaster. His call for help could be not more central to a disaster aid effort.
SNAP, which operates in the states and in territories like the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam, provides benefits to all eligible residents, so its budget expands and contracts automatically to meet changing needs. But NAP doesn’t; as we’ve explained, it’s a block grant under which Puerto Rico gets a capped amount of about $2 billion a year to provide benefits to very poor households. The $2 billion, however, isn’t sufficient to enable eligible beneficiaries to meet their nutritional needs — and it’s well below what Puerto Rico households would receive if NAP operated like SNAP.
On top of the $2 billion, the President and Congress provided roughly $1.27 billion in additional NAP funding in October 2017 after Hurricanes Irma and María, which the devastated Commonwealth used to boost benefits and extend the program to more needy households. (The benefit increase put Puerto Rico’s benefit levels essentially on par with households that participate in SNAP.) Puerto Rico expects the $1.27 billion to run out in March. Once that happens, NAP benefits will revert to pre-disaster levels, leaving 1.4 million struggling Puerto Rico residents with less money to put food on the table.
The best long-term solution to Puerto Rico’s nutrition assistance needs and limited ability to respond to a natural or economic disaster would be to let SNAP — which operated in the Commonwealth until the early 1980s — do so again. But the immediate priority is for the Senate to join the House in providing Governor Rosselló’s request so that those still suffering in the aftermath of Hurricanes María and Irma can meet their basic food needs.