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Puerto Rico’s Status to Cost Needy $2.2 Billion in Federal Food Funds

The Democratic majority U.S. Senate this week passed a bill that would deny millions of low-income Puerto Ricans some $2.2 billion in food over the next five years that would be provided to their fellow Americans in the States.

The discrimination against Puerto Rico in the agriculture and nutrition programs reauthorization bill was made possible by the islands’ territory status, sometimes  misleadingly called “commonwealth.”

The Agriculture Committee of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives recently passed a companion bill that would similarly continue lesser assistance to Puerto Ricans in the main Federal nutrition assistance program.

A 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that equal treatment in 2009 would have increased the number of low-income households in Puerto Rico receiving assistance for food 167,000, from 554,000 to as many as 721,000 households.

There are three people in the average household in Puerto Rico, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census. So, equal treatment would have provided food aid to an additional 501,000 Puerto Ricans.

Further, equal treatment with the States would have raised the assistance to the average household in Puerto Rico $23 per month from $240 to $263.

That would have benefitted the 554,000 households receiving assistance, approximately 1,662,000 Puerto Ricans.

Treatment as a State would have provided assistance to an additional 13% of Puerto Ricans, boosting the percentage of households receiving help for buying food from 30 to 43.

The $439.2 million a year would also have boosted the territory’s failing economy.

Puerto Rico was treated equally with the States in the Food Stamps program, which is now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, until 1982.  President Reagan proposed a revision of the program that would have limited funding in the entire country.

The congressional delegations of the States rejected the proposal for the States but passed it for Puerto Rico – which had no votes in the Congress.

The House Agriculture Committee bill would also end a feature of the lesser-funded Puerto Rico program.  This aspect lets the territory provide 25% of the assistance for food in cash instead of through an electronic card.

Supermarkets and other large food retailers in Puerto Rico lobbied for an end to this feature of the program.

The purpose of the cash assistance had been to enable program beneficiaries to buy food from smaller retailers who did not have the equipment for electronic card purchases.

But the Agriculture Department found that recipients of the assistance were using the cash to buy items other than food – including liquor, cigarettes, and lottery tickets in addition to more worthwhile non-food purchases.

The House Agriculture Committee approved the provision to end cash assistance over the objection of Puerto Rico’s governor and representative to the Federal government.

The cash assistance feature of the Puerto Rico program has been cited as a justification for providing Puerto Ricans with lesser assistance for food than other Americans.  It has also been raised as a reason for not providing low-income Puerto Ricans with other assistance provided their fellow citizens in the States.




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