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Why this disaster relief bill is stuck on a debate over Puerto Rico food stamps

A debate over food assistance funding for Puerto Rico has stalled a massive disaster relief bill in the Senate, as Democrats demand President Donald Trump agree to spend more to help the island recover from two hurricanes in 2017.

Caught in the middle are more than 1 million Puerto Ricans who rely on a federal food subsidy program that’s slated to run out of money at the end of the month unless Congress intervenes.

The disaster relief bill the Senate advanced on Tuesday included an additional $600 million in funding for Puerto Rico’s Nutritional Assistance Program, or NAP, the island’s version of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — known as food stamps — that provides food assistance for low-income Americans on the mainland. But in a meeting Tuesday with Senate Republicans, Trump reportedly complained about Puerto Rico receiving too much aid and said he opposes additional funding for the island — remarks that angered Democrats, and made the fate of the final bill uncertain.

Puerto Rican officials and several lawmakers — largely Democrats — have pushed for more funding to help the U.S. territory rebuild from Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Hurricane Maria devastated the island’s infrastructure, and after it hit in September 2017, the government said 64 people had died in the storm — a number that has been disputed in studies since, including a George Washington University study last summer that there were at least another 2,975 deaths in the six months following the storm. An internal assessment by the Federal Emergency Management Agency found the government was unprepared to handle a storm the size of Maria. FEMA’s response, marked by a lack of personnel, supplies and local preparation, among other flaws, was inadequate, according to the report.

After the House passed its version of the aid package in January, the White House said the Puerto Rico funding in the bill was “excessive and unnecessary.” President Donald Trump eventually agreed to back the bill, but his complaints Tuesday gave some senators pause.

While the fight plays out in Washington, Puerto Rico is facing a food stamp crisis. The $600 million in disaster relief included in the Senate bill would help Puerto Rico fund its food assistance program through the end of the fiscal year in September. But officials and advocates in Puerto Rico say, it still wouldn’t provide a long-term solution for the island’s nutritional assistance funding, which is significantly underfunded compared to the food stamps program in the rest of the U.S.

How NAP works

The Nutritional Assistance Program receives a fixed amount of $2 billion from Congress each fiscal year, starting in October. The funds are administered by Puerto Rico’s Department of Family Affairs, which uses eligibility criteria — including income, household size, and expenses — to determine who qualifies for the program.

Currently, 1.35 million people, or roughly one-third of Puerto Rico’s population, are enrolled in the program. Of those, 337,865 are children, and 334,449 are older adults, according to the department’s data.

But unlike SNAP, whose annual spending isn’t capped and accepts anyone who qualifies for the benefits, Puerto Rico’s nutrition assistance program does not expand or contract according to the needs of the population. If more money is needed, Puerto Rico has to go to Congress to secure the funding.

In 2017, Congress approved an additional $1.27 billion on top of the NAP program’s regular annual funding to address the island’s nutritional needs after Hurricane Maria and Irma. Puerto Rico’s government used the extra funding to increase benefits for individuals already enrolled in the program and enrolled more than 100,000 new participants, said Javier Balmaceda, senior analyst for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“It was almost as if Puerto Rico, for the first time, had benefits like the rest of the nation,” Balmaceda said.

But last November, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Roselló said the additional funds would run out by March 2019, and requested $600 million to keep the expanded program afloat through the end of the fiscal year.

With the added funding running out — and uncertainty over the final amount and timing of the disaster bill moving through Congress — the Department of Family Affairs has already started cutting Puerto Rico’s nutritional assistance program by 25 percent. A family of four receiving a monthly amount of $649 saw its benefits cut down to $410 this March, said Frances Rodríguez, spokesperson for the Department of Family Affairs. The agency is planning to use reserve funds to keep the program running through September if Congress doesn’t approve additional resources, Rodríguez said.

Why is the program is underfunded?

Approximately 33 percent of Puerto Ricans are enrolled in NAP, but the program’s standard annual funding still doesn’t cover all the people who need nutritional assistance on the island, officials said. Puerto Rico has a poverty rate of 43 percent, but many people who are low-income but don’t live under the poverty level aren’t eligible for NAP. The eligibility criteria is also stricter than SNAP guidelines in the U.S., where more low-income people qualify for food assistance compared to Puerto Rico.

In Puerto Rico, a family of four cannot have an annual income level above $24,396 — or $2,033 a month — in order to receive benefits, Rodríguez said. In Florida and Connecticut, states that have the highest populations of Puerto Ricans, the maximum annual income level for a family of four applying for SNAP benefits is $49,200 and $31,590, respectively.

“There is a percentage of the population that is under the poverty level that we can’t serve because we don’t have the money to cover all the needs of our people,” said Glorimar Andújar, the secretary of Puerto Rico’s Department of Family Affairs, the agency that administers the program, in an interview with PBS NewsHour.

The food assistance program in Puerto Rico “is underfunded,” said Hector Cordero, a professor and researcher at Baruch College in New York who studies the demographics of NAP recipients in Puerto Rico.. Disaster relief “supplemental funds make it fairer but still does not provide enough support on a monthly basis to support the full nutritional needs of low income families in Puerto Rico.”

According to Cordero, 42 percent of people enrolled in NAP are looking for work, and 15 percent of recipients are currently employed. Puerto Rico’s economy, which was crippled by the hurricanes, has not generated enough jobs for all the NAP recipients looking for work, Cordero said.

Food security and economic stability are deeply interconnected, Andújar added. “If people have food security, they can dedicate their resources to their families and break the cycles of poverty.”

What’s next?

It’s unclear what will happen with the Senate disaster relief bill, which is currently stalled after the upper chamber voted 90-10 on Tuesday to advance it for final passage. The bill’s prospects in the House are also uncertain. House Democrats are pushing for additional aid disaster relief for Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories — funding that was originally proposed in the House earlier this year but could now be dead on arrival if Trump does change positions.

If the Senate bill passes as written now, it would likely face opposition when both chambers meet to hammer out a final version of the legislation.

“House Democrats oppose this bill because it does not adequately address disaster relief and recovery in Puerto Rico and the territories,” Evan Hollander, the House Appropriations Committee communications director, in a statement. “If the Senate passes this bill, we will insist on going to conference to ensure that we meet the needs of all Americans.”

But some Republican lawmakers argue that holding up the disaster bill over Puerto Rico would affect other states that also suffered extreme damage from natural disasters — the Senate bill would also give nutritional and medical assistance to Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, which were hit by Hurricanes Florence and Georgia in the fall. And it would only make the NAP issue worse.

“I support further funding for Puerto Rico. But it would be a mistake to hold up the current disaster relief bill over it,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla, said in a tweet. “The bill not only helps Florida and many other states,it has badly needed funds for islands SNAP program.”

Advocates said congressional lawmakers should keep Puerto Rico’s population in mind as they debate the issue on Capitol Hill. “This is isn’t money for a shiny new project,” said Balmaceda, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “This is money for the poorest families in Puerto Rico, to help them feed themselves.”