Puerto Rico starts cutting food stamp benefits amid congressional impasse
Puerto Rico has started cutting benefits paid out by a food stamps program used by more than 1 million of its residents, as federal lawmakers have not provided the island with additional emergency disaster funding amid opposition from the Trump administration.
On Monday, Puerto Rico started reducing food stamp benefits by an average of 25 percent, part of an effort to sustain a program that has seen a dramatic increase in demand in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017, said a spokesman for Puerto Rico's department of family affairs.
The food stamp benefit is currently distributed monthly to about 1.3 million of its residents, or 43 percent of those living on the island, the spokesman said. The reductions bring the benefit levels back to where they were before the hurricane.
The benefit cut, caused by an impasse among federal lawmakers over aid funding for the U.S. territory, has sparked new fears among Puerto Ricans about a critical lifeline for poorer residents amid an explosion of hunger since the hurricane made its mark.
"It is dangerous. People don't have enough money to buy food already," said Socorro Rivera, executive director of La Fondita de Jesús, a nonprofit near San Juan that provides food for the homeless, who worries about being overwhelmed with new requests if the issue is not resolved soon.
"It's obvious a lot of people will have severe problems," Rivera said.
Several federal proposals have emerged that could quickly fund the program, though only temporarily. The Trump administration has now given its support for $600 million in additional food stamp benefits for Puerto Rico as part of a broader package spearheaded by Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., a spokeswoman for the senator said.
The Trump administration had previously dismissed House Democrats' proposed $600 million plan to extend additional aid as "excessive and unnecessary," amid a report in The Washington Post that Trump told top White House officials he did not want a single dollar going to Puerto Rico because he thought the island was not using the money properly and was exploiting the federal government.
The prospects of a deal are uncertain. Perdue included funding for the Puerto Rico food stamps program in a separate bill aiming to give financial aid for farmers in states such as Georgia to improve the legislation's chances of passing, a spokeswoman for Perdue said.
There is no vote scheduled or timeline for passage. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may bring up Perdue's legislation this month, according to another source with knowledge who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
House Democrats in January approved funding for Puerto Rico in January that would go beyond Perdue's legislation, including a measure that would reduce Puerto Rico's requirement to share the costs of some reconstruction projects.
Some Senate Democrats are pushing to include similar measures in the aid package being pushed by Perdue. Four Democratic Senators, including presidential candidates Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., sent a letter earlier this month saying they were "deeply disappointed" the GOP bill neglects additional assistance for Puerto Rico beyond food stamps money.
Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in September 2017, leading to thousands of deaths, causing an estimated $90 billion of dollars in damages, and devastating an economy that had already been in a recession for more than a decade.
Congress and the Trump administration have since approved more than $40 billion in emergency recovery money, as well as $1.27 billion in special food stamp funding, said Federico de Jesús, principal of FDJ Solutions, a consulting firm, and the former deputy director of the Puerto Rico governor's office in Washington, D.C. At least $19 billion of that $40 billion has not yet been spent, de Jesús said.
Left in the funding lurch are Puerto Rico residents like Valeria Delgado Rivera, 28, who relies on the food stamp program for food to feed her daughter. Her hours at a Spanish restaurant in the Puerto Rican town of Carolina were cut in half after the hurricane, increasing her dependence on the food stamp program. She said the cuts to the program may force her to only buy breakfast and dinner, once she receives her reduced benefit package later this month.
"For me, it's difficult because the only help I get for buying food is from this program," Rivera said. "Of course I'm scared."
Puerto Rico's food stamp program is uniquely dependent on periodic help from Congress, though the island does not have a voting representative in either the House or Senate, or a say in presidential elections.
In mainland U.S. states, food stamp benefits expand or contract according to each state's need. During the U.S. recession, for instance, the size of the federal food stamp programs skyrocketed, as did the number of Americans who rely on it.
Puerto Rico's program works differently. The island administers a separate program - called the Nutritional Assistance Program, rather than the Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (or "SNAP") received by mainland states - through an annual block grant provided by the federal government.
Because of emergency funding from Congress, food stamp benefits for Puerto Rico residents rose to $649 a month for a family of four after Hurricane Maria, matching the size of the benefit a family of four typically receives in the rest of the United States. But with cuts starting, Puerto Rico has returned to paying $410 a month for a family of four on food stamp benefits, or about 40 percent less than that received by U.S. families, a spokesman for Puerto Rico's Department of Families said.
Even if approved by Congress, the additional $600 million allocation would only fund the island's food stamps program until September 2019, said de Jesús, the former deputy director in the Puerto Rico governor's office.
More than 330,000 elderly people are among the Puerto Rican residents currently on the food stamps program, territory officials said. An additional 22,000 families asked for aid over the last year were denied assistance, a spokesman for the Department of Family said.
Puerto Ricans are four times as likely to be considered "food insecure" than the average American, with about 40 percent of the island considered to lack basic access to sufficient nutritious food, said Bread for the World, a nonprofit that aims to end hunger. Puerto Rico's median income is about $20,000, less than half the poorest U.S. state.
Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, said in an interview that the aid must be approved immediately and blasted the Trump administration's January rejection of funding as "unrealistic and totally unhinged from the facts."
"This is not about politics - this is literally about people's lives and their ability to feed their children and their elders in Puerto Rico," Cruz said. "The need is still there."
The Washington Post's Laura Reiley contributed reporting to this report.