Congress may boost Puerto Rico food assistance under plan backed by NY Sens. Gillibrand and Schumer

Tribune Content Agency

WASHINGTON — Americans who need food shouldn’t get vastly less help than other citizens just because they live in Puerto Rico, lawmakers on Capitol Hill said Wednesday as they introduced a bill that would level the scales for the island territory.

Lower-income Americans generally get food assistance from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but Puerto Rico was cut out of that system — then known as food stamps — in 1981.

Instead, Congress gave Puerto Rico a smaller block grant that cannot cover as many people as SNAP does, and which requires the territory to place severe restrictions on access.

It’s left Puerto Rico in a situation where a lower-income family of four has to survive on about $551 in food aid per month, which is about the same amount that a mainland family of two gets from SNAP.

The bill rolled out Wednesday, the Puerto Rico Nutrition Assistance Fairness Act, would boost that family of four’s aid to $939 a month, said the lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY.

“These are our brothers, our sisters — American citizens who deserve this fundamental benefit,” Gillibrand said. “A lot of Puerto Ricans can’t feed their families. They can’t feed their children, and they need help.”

The measure has some bipartisan support, and likely would have its best chance of passing by being included in this year’s renewal of the massive farm bill, which includes funding for the Department of Agriculture’s SNAP program. Gillibrand said that was the likely path.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer also supports the effort, and said it’s a simple matter of fairness.

“It’s time for the block grant system to go, plain and simple, because it discriminates against Puerto Rico,” Schumer said. “If any other state had a block grant, they’d be screaming about it, saying it’s not fair. It should be based on the number of people who need help.”

An added complication for Puerto Rico has been a relentless series of natural disasters it’s faced in recent years, from hurricanes to the pandemic. With a block grant, Puerto Rico can’t adjust to meet increased need, and must plead to Congress for more money.

“This can take months,” said Gillibrand. “Can you imagine to have to wait for Congress for your next meal? Can you imagine surviving a hurricane, having your home destroyed, having your loved ones injured or killed, and then after all that, you still don’t have enough food to eat? It’s absurd.”