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Policymakers Should Now Turn to Puerto Rico’s Longer-Term Recovery

Now that Congress has passed a supplemental funding package that includes food assistance for Puerto Rico — enabling the Agriculture Department to work with the Commonwealth to design, fund, and implement a disaster plan to give hurricane-affected residents the food they need over the coming weeks — policymakers should take steps that will fuel Puerto Rico’s longer-term economic and structural recovery.

Puerto Rico’s needs, including for nutrition assistance, will remain high. Even with this supplemental funding, its Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP) likely won’t be able to accommodate heightened demand over the long term because its funding is capped. As a result, Puerto Rico receives significantly less funding through NAP than it would under the regular Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), which isn’t capped and, thus, can address heightened need. By contrast, other major federal nutrition programs, including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children and school meals, treat Puerto Rico the same as other states and territories.

Also, the disaster package didn’t include any critically needed assistance for Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program, for which — as with the other territories, but unlike with the states — federal funding is also capped.

Even before Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico struggled with crippling debt and high unemployment. Due to the storm, the island now faces shortages of basic resources, including water, fuel, medicine, and medical care. And reports indicate that the electric grid will not be fully operational for several months.

Some economists project that, without sufficient support, the hurricane’s effects will slow economic recovery significantly. As the Trump Administration and Congress consider the next supplemental funding package to help disaster-stricken areas rebuild, along with additional Medicaid assistance to ensure access to needed health care, they must make sure that NAP has sufficient resources to meet Puerto Ricans’ food assistance needs in both the short and longer term.