The clock ticks for Puerto Rico’s poor since the Trump administration has announced it won’t support supplemental funding for the storm-ravaged island’s food stamps program.
Emergency food aid for an estimated 1.4 million Puerto Ricans will dry up at the start of March if a $600 million appropriation isn’t approved by Congress and the White House. Without the additional funding, about 1.3 million U.S. citizens will face a steep drop in food assistance. Roughly 100,000 will be kicked off program entirely, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).
Attempts by congressional Democrats to secure the emergency funding have been blocked by a White House hell bent on building a border wall. The compromise spending bill signed by Trump last week will keep the government open, but does not include any disaster aid for Puerto Rico.
Responding to the devastation left by Hurricanes Maria in 2017, the White House and Congress approved $1.27 billion to bolster Puerto Rico’s food stamps program, known as Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP), in addition to the $1.8 billion in yearly funding the program regularly receives from the federal government. The supplementary appropriation was meant to offer the island time to get back on its feet after being ravaged by the storm. But Puerto Rican officials have warned for months that the standard funding is insufficient. The requested $600 million would continue benefits at current levels until September of this year.
Unless the supplemental $600 million is approved, NAP benefits will return to pre-hurricane levels in March and eligibility standards for the program will tighten. For a family of four that was already enrolled in the program, that means that the current maximum benefit of $649 a month will drop to $410, according to the CBPP analysis. Some 100,000 Puerto Ricans who joined the program in the wake of the hurricane will lose access altogether.
The Trump administration has been adamant in its opposition to setting aside more money for the island, and Trump himself has falsely alleged that Puerto Rican politicians are after disaster aid to pay off the island’s towering debts.
In January, House Democrats passed a $12.1 billion disaster aid bill that included $600 million in NAP funding. The White House took issue with many of the bills’ funding targets, particularly food assistance for Puerto Rico. It labeled the emergency NAP funding as “excessive and unnecessary” in its official response to the bill.
“There is no indication that households need ongoing support at this time or that Puerto Rico requires additional time to return to normal NAP operations,” the statement said.
The Trump administration would eventually go on to propose a border wall funding bill of its own that included $12.7 billion in general disaster aid as a sweetener for Democrats. However, it included no funding for Puerto Rico.
During the negotiations over wall funding and keeping the government open, NAP funding took a backseat. In the end, the spending bill approved by Congress and the White House did not include any disaster assistance. Trump declared a national emergency soon after signing the bill, aiming to redirect funding from federal agencies to the construction of the border wall. According to recent reports, the Trump administration had considered raiding future federal disaster aid to pay forthe wall, but fear of political blowback made it change course.
With a government shutdown averted, Congress is expected to turn soon to disaster aid. But it’s still doubtful that NAP funding will make it past the White House—and even if it managed to, it would likely not be soon enough to meet the program’s fast-approaching funding cliff.
“Puerto Rico has been forced to come to Congress on bended knee for more funding,” says Javier Balmaceda, a CBPP analyst specializing in Puerto Rico. “The island has had to go through hoops to get funding that states don’t go through.”
In 1982, Congress removed Puerto Rico from the national food stamps program, now known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and created NAP exclusively for the island. Thereafter, food stamp funding for Puerto Rico came in the form of a capped block grant. As a result, funding for NAP has generally remained lower than SNAP benefits in states and has stayed mostly flat for more than 30 years (around $2 billion, adjusted for food inflation).
Because of the funding limits imposed on NAP, Puerto Rico has been forced to adjust the program’s poverty threshold and lower maximum benefits. As the island’s economy began to collapse in 2007, NAP continued cutting off thousands of newly needy families from food assistance. Nearly 45 percent of Puerto Ricans already lived in poverty before Hurricane Maria—more than three times the national poverty rate—with 38 percent of the island’s households receiving NAP benefits in 2017. The $1.27 billion in emergency funding temporarily aligned NAP’s benefits with those received by households participating in SNAP.
As Balmaceda points out in CBBP’s analysis, Puerto Rican food stamp recipients are much poorer than their SNAP counterparts: “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.”
All 50 states, the District of Columbia, and territories like Virgin Islands and Guam have no funding limits for their food assistance program; SNAP benefits automatically expand and contract according to the ever-shifting number of eligible recipients. Critically, SNAP’s structure, unlike that of NAP, allows food benefits to respond to demand in cases of economic downturn or during and after natural disasters.
In the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Irma, for instance, the number of SNAP participation in Louisiana more than doubled, jumping from nearly 500,000 people in 2004 to more than one million in 2006 (the funds to cover the increase came from the program’s budget and did not require an additional appropriation from Congress). Despite comparable devastation in Puerto Rico, emergency funding after Maria only allowed for a modest increase in NAP rolls. Now, that modest increase may soon become a thing of the past.
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