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US House to Vote to Require Change in Commonwealth Food Program

The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote today on a bill that would prevent Puerto Rico from providing 25% of benefits under the Federal government’s main food assistance program for territorial residents in cash instead of through an electronic card.

Puerto Rico supermarkets lobbied for an end to this Commonwealth feature of the program.

The prohibition was proposed by Representative Steve King (R-Iowa) and is included a bill to reauthorize some of the nation’s main food assistance programs sponsored by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Oklahoma).

Puerto Rico’s Commonwealth government claimed years ago that it was providing some of the assistance in cash to enable program beneficiaries to buy food from small retailers who did not have the equipment for electronic card purchases.

But the Commonwealth government has still not helped these retailers to acquire the technology needed for electronic cards.

And the U.S. Department of Agriculture has found that the cash has often been used to buy items other than food — including liquor, cigarettes, and lottery tickets in addition to more worthwhile non-food purchases.

The House Rules Committee approved the legislation late yesterday.

The Agriculture Committee approved the provision to end cash assistance over the objections of the Director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, Juan Hernandez Mayoral (“Commonwealth” party), and the territory’s official representative to the Federal government, Pedro Pierluisi (statehood party/D).  As Resident Commissioner, Pierluisi has a seat in the U.S. House but can only vote on committees to which he is assigned, although Puerto Rico has a population of close to 3.7 million and Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.

The cash 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 aid provided their fellow citizens in the States.

A major purpose of the bill is to authorize funding for and reform the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which used to be called the Food Stamps program.

Although Puerto Rico was formerly treated like a State in Food Stamps, it was taken out of the program and a special — lesser — program, the Nutrition Assistance Program for Puerto Rico, was created in 1981.

A main purpose of the change was to save the Federal government money.

The Reagan Administration proposed similar lesser programs for the States — but U.S. senators from the States blocked the change for the States.

The discrimination against Puerto Rico was made possible by the islands’ territory status, sometimes misleadingly called “Commonwealth.”

The bill expected to be considered by the House today would make sharp cuts in spending in SNAP.  Thanks to lobbying by Pierluisi as well as recognition in Congress that the Commonwealth is underfunded in comparison to the States, however, the bill would not reduce the grant to Puerto Rico.

The legislation would save $39 billion in SNAP spending over a decade, eliminating assistance to 3.8 million people next year and reducing assistance to 850,000 more.  The program would be cut by 12% by 2015.

President Obama’s Administration expects to spend $1.873 billion on the Puerto Rico program during the fiscal year that ends September 30th and has proposed spending $1.892 billion on it in Fiscal Year 2014.

PRFAA’s Hernandez put the funding at risk by proposing that the bill the House is expected to consider be amended to drop the prohibition on Puerto Rico providing assistance in cash.  The amendment could have caused House budget cutters to extend the national program cuts to the Puerto Rico program.

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

State treatment could have provided food aid to an additional 501,000 Puerto Ricans.

Further, State treatment would have raised the assistance to the average household 9.6%, $23 per month from $240 to $263.  That would have benefitted the 554,000 households receiving assistance, approximately 1,662,000 Puerto Ricans.

State treatment could have provided an additional $825 million during the year.  This would have benefitted Puerto Rico’s failing economy as well as needy Puerto Ricans and Puerto Rican farmers and food sellers.

The Democratic majority U.S. Senate has 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.

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