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Without More Federal Funding, 1.4 Million Puerto Rico Residents Face Food Aid Cuts

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 two things: (1) Puerto Rico’s ongoing struggle to recover from the devastating effects of Hurricanes Irma and María, as well as (2) larger structural problems with NAP’s financing that policymakers eventually should fix.

The immediate problem is the March cliff — which, if not addressed, will cost 1.3 million people, on average, more than a third of their NAP benefits and cause another 100,000 people to lose their benefits entirely. For a very poor family of four, for instance, the maximum benefit that currently totals $649 a month will fall to $410, shrinking benefits by almost $60 per person.

How did we get here?

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 does not; as we’ve explained, it’s a block grant under which Puerto Rico gets a capped amount of about $2 billion a year and uses it 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. Puerto Rico expects the $1.27 billion to run out in March. Once that happens, NAP benefits will revert to pre-disaster levels, leaving struggling Puerto Rico residents with less money to put food on the table. More than 1.3 million people who already were participating in NAP will see their nutritional assistance drop substantially, and 100,000 who became newly eligible with the additional funding will lose their benefits entirely.

In light of the March cliff, Puerto Rico’s governor has asked the President and Congress for another $600 million in disaster NAP funding, which would enable the Commonwealth to maintain current NAP benefits for about six more months. Policymakers could include this aid in the disaster relief package that they may consider this month in response to Hurricane Michael.

Under its basic NAP program, Puerto Rico falls well short of providing nutritional assistance to all residents who live below the poverty line. In 2015, U.S. Agriculture Department data show, some 97 percent of NAP participants had monthly income below half of the federal poverty line — meaning that people between 50 percent and 100 percent of the poverty line were almost entirely left out. By contrast, only 43 percent of SNAP participants have monthly incomes below half the poverty line. Puerto Rico’s NAP program has to sharply limit the assistance it provides due to its limited block-grant funding, not because of a lack of need among impoverished residents who are modestly above half the poverty level, which is only $866 per month for a family of three in 2018.

The best long-term solution to Puerto Rico’s nutrition assistance needs and its 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. In the near term, however, in order to ensure that those still suffering from the aftermath of Hurricanes Maria and Irma can meet their basic food needs, the President and Congress should act soon to extend the increased level of NAP funding that the $1.27 billion is providing.