Nutrition Assistance in Puerto Rico: What It Means to be a Territory

Congressional consideration of the 2012 Farm Bill is once again raising issues about Puerto Rico’s status as a territory and the practical implications of that status.

The United States Senate passed its version of the Farm Bill on June 21st.  The Agriculture Committee in the House of Representatives approved a different version of the bill on July 12th.  The Agriculture Committee’s measure now must move to the full House of Representatives.  Puerto Rico’s treatment in the two different Farm Bills – and its history under federal nutritional assistance programs generally  – is illustrative of what it means to be a territory and not a state.

The Senate version of the legislation contains a slight increase in nutrition assistance for Puerto Rico.  The enhanced resources were added through an amendment championed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).  Sen. Gillibrand has explained that her proposal would “mitigate – but by no means eliminate – the profoundly unfair treatment that Puerto Rico presently receives from the federal government under the nutrition assistance program.”

The Gillibrand amendment was not included in the House Agriculture Committee bill.  Instead, the House Farm Bill contains a controversial amendment added by Rep. Steve King (R-IA) during Committee consideration that seeks to to bar Puerto Rico from distributing any of its food aid in cash.   Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (D-PR) had stated his opposition to the measure, noting that many small stores in Puerto Rico do not have the technolgy to accept the electonic card payments.   Rep. Pierluisi, however, could not vote on the proposal because he does not sit on the Agriculture Committee.  Because Rep. Pierluisi is the only Member of Congress representing the 3.7 million residents of Puerto Rico, no one from Puerto Rico had a voice on the measure offered by the Congressman from Iowa.

Congress removed Puerto Rico from the national Food Stamp program in 1982 and chose instead to provide Puerto Rico with a capped nutrition assistance block grant.  In 2008, when Congress reformed the federal Food Stamp program and renamed it the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), it decided once again to treat Puerto Rico differently from the states and maintain its less generous block grant, now known as the Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP).   The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated in 2010 that if Puerto Rico were to join the states in the federal SNAP program, 222,000 more individuals on the Island would receive nutrition assistance and the Island’s funding would increase by $457 million annually.

On April 12, 2012, Rep. Pierluisi introduced legislation to eliminate the limited PAN block grant and include Puerto Rico in the federal SNAP program.  That bill is still awaiting consideration by the House Agriculture Committee.

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Misunderstandings About Puerto Rico's Status - Puerto Rico Report

[…] One big difference is that residents of a territory cannot vote in presidential elections. Territories are also not represented by senators and congressional representatives, but just by a Resident Commissioner, who cannot vote as the States’ congressional representatives do. Essentially, territories do not have a voice in the democratic process as states do.  This may sound theoretical or academic, but there are practical consequences of this arrangement. […]

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