As a territory, Puerto Rico is treated differently from the 50 states in many ways. Usually, this means unequal – and lesser – treatment. For example, nutrition assistance (food stamps) in Puerto Rico is different from the system in the states. Puerto Rico receives capped funding for its Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP), originally set at about 25% less than funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a Federal entitlement involving unlimited spending based on need, in the states.
President Biden has announced his intention to make Puerto Rico (and other territories in the same position) equal to states in the SNAP program.
“President Biden is fully committed to the territories having access to the federal nutrition programs consistent with states,” said Stacy Dean, USDA deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services, during a hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives this week. “That will take an act of Congress, but we are already leaning in on that.”
How is Puerto Rico’s NAP different from SNAP?
The SNAP program is based on the needs of the states. The NAP program is a block grant for a certain amount of money, regardless of the needs of the Island. This includes circumstances like Hurricane Maria or COVID-19 — NAP does not automatically respond to greater need with greater resources as SNAP does.
What’s more, the amount provided is significantly smaller than the funding for SNAP. Congress proposes, discusses, and sometimes passes bills providing extra funding for nutrition assistance in Puerto Rico, but these are one-off additions to the amount of funding available. Usually, Puerto Rico just has to set eligibility levels much lower than the states in order to keep spending within the budget.
For example, in 2019, a family of three could not earn more than $1,706 per month in order to be eligible for NAP. In the states, the amount is $2,353 to be eligible for SNAP.
There was at one point a proposal from the PROMESA board to require NAP recipients to work in order to receive benefits. There have been many proposals introduced in Congress to make Puerto Rico more equal in nutrition assistance, including the Equitable Nutrition Assistance for the Territories Act of 2020 and Closing the Meal Gap Act. So far, there have been no substantive changes.
Would this change affect Puerto Rico’s status?
If the administration is successful in its efforts to provide equity in the food stamps program, it could improve Puerto Rico’s position without a change of status.
While it would be beneficial for Puerto Rico to have equality in nutrition assistance, it would not be a permanent solution. After all, Puerto Rico was equal to states under the original Food Stamp program from 1974 to 1982. Under President Reagan — a statehood supporter — Congress replaced Food Stamps in Puerto Rico with NAP, a program that cost the United States 25% less than the Food Stamps program.
“The block grant capped funding at about 25 percent below what households in Puerto Rico would have received under the Food Stamp Program and did not include automatic annual adjustments for inflation, resulting in a greater gap over time,” explains the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “By 1984, for example, income eligibility limits were about 40 percent lower than they would have been in the Food Stamp Program, and eligibility and benefit restrictions contributed to NAP participants having fewer resources available for food.”
Congress can make changes to rules and laws for Puerto Rico at any time, regardless of the treatment of states under the same programs.
As a state, Puerto Rico would follow the same rules as the other states.