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Puerto Rico and Other Territories Should Get Food Assistance Equity in Upcoming Farm Bill
More than 40 years ago, Puerto Rico was ousted from the nation’s federal food assistance program, with its food assistance benefits converted to an inflexible block grant and cut substantially. The upcoming farm bill is an opportunity to right this long-standing inequity and fully integrate the territory back into the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This change would significantly improve benefits for the vast majority of Puerto Rico families currently enrolled in the Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP), the territory’s inferior version of SNAP. Moreover, the transition would allow Puerto Rico to provide food assistance to more families and better respond to changes in need.
Lawmakers should also use the farm bill to make progress on food assistance equity for two other U.S. territories, American Samoa and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), which are also excluded from SNAP. (The U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam are the only two U.S. territories that fully participate in SNAP, as well as all 50 states and the District of Columbia.)
Undoing this discriminatory treatment is critically important for Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the CNMI, as these territories have among the highest poverty rates in the country — roughly 40, 50, and 35 percent, respectively — and are increasingly prone to devastating storms. The CNMI is, in fact, still recovering from Typhoon Mawar in May, and Puerto Rico continues to reel from the devastation wrought by several hurricanes and earthquakes in the last six years, coupled with a years-long bankruptcy process that just recently began to wind down.
Under the block grant structure, the federal government extends fixed amounts of funding to provide basic household food assistance in these territories. Because block grant funding is capped, the territories must constrain benefit levels and eligibility for their food assistance programs to stay within budget rather than base them on need or the price of food.
In stark contrast, SNAP is funded through a structure that enables the program to serve all eligible people who apply, and to expand and contract to accommodate changing need, particularly in the aftermath of natural disasters or as a result of economic recessions.
The funding disparities directly affect millions of American citizens and nationals across Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the CNMI, who face significant poverty and hardship.
In fiscal year 2023, the maximum monthly NAP benefit for all household sizes was only about half or less of the maximum SNAP benefit, illustrating the vast inequity between SNAP and NAP benefits. (Any comparison of maximum benefits between NAP and SNAP should account for additional payments to households as funding allows that often take place under NAP, which raise the program’s average maximum benefits and thus modestly reduce gaps versus SNAP. But even when accounting for those additional payments, maximum NAP benefits for all family sizes are substantially lower than those under SNAP.)
If Puerto Rico participated in SNAP, 15 percent more low-income households would be able to participate than in NAP, and 26 percent more federal funds would go toward serving eligible people and providing more robust benefits, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) determined in a comprehensive 2010 assessment. Twelve years later, an update to that study reaffirmed that under SNAP, the number of newly eligible households would rise by about the same amount as the 2010 report showed, and benefit levels would be higher for most people to help better meet their food needs.
It wasn’t always like this for Puerto Rico. The territory participated fully in SNAP’s predecessor, the Food Stamp Program, from 1974 (when the program went nationwide) until 1982. But in the 1982 budget bill, Congress and President Reagan shortchanged Puerto Rico with a block grant that became NAP, setting funding levels well below what Puerto Rico had been receiving under the Food Stamp Program. Puerto Rico’s food assistance program has served many fewer people ever since, despite the territory’s acute poverty levels. The CNMI and American Samoa began operating their versions of NAP in 1982 and 1994, respectively, and suffer from the same benefit and eligibility inequities.
While funding inequities have forced territories to offer less-comprehensive versions of some programs such as SNAP and Medicaid, they successfully operate a multitude of other federal programs like any state. For instance, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and child nutrition programs including school meal programs operate under the same funding, eligibility, and benefit structures in Puerto Rico as in states. This precedent is key when considering Puerto Rico’s ability to transition from NAP to SNAP, which would require several administrative steps and investments that should happen gradually, as USDA noted in its 2022 report.
Lawmakers now have an opportunity to reintegrate Puerto Rico into SNAP, and to move toward food assistance equity for American Samoa and CNMI. This farm bill should help advance justice for the territories by providing adequate and equitable relief to so many American families who have long received less than their counterparts in the states.