1. Update
  2. Economic Justice

Congress Leaves Town as Aid for Puerto Rico Runs Out

By Amelia Kegan, April 11, 2019

Congress left town for a two-week recess. Many legislative items remain undone, but one of the most urgent and tragic is the failure to pass a disaster assistance package. As a result, nearly 1.4 million individuals in Puerto Rico, a third of the island’s population, have seen their nutrition assistance deeply cut since the end of March.

Puerto Rico’s Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP) operates in place of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). But NAP is not an entitlement program like SNAP. Instead, it is a block grant. As a block grant, NAP does not automatically expand or contract in response to need.

There is a clear racial justice angle in this that we cannot ignore. Such disparate treatment is unjust and immoral.

Congress allocated additional funding for NAP in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. This disaster food assistance funding has been critical to helping families meet basic food needs while they continue to recover from the devastation caused by hurricanes. That additional NAP funding ran out at the end of March, and Congress has failed to extend it, despite the serious need for ongoing recovery efforts.

This has had a severe impact on people struggling with hunger. For example, a family of four with little or no income received the maximum NAP benefit of $649 in February. This is the same benefit level a similar household in the rest of the country receives from SNAP. However, in Puerto Rico, that household saw its monthly benefit cut to the pre-disaster benefit level of $410—a 37 percent cut—in April. Up to 230,000 individuals have potentially lost food assistance altogether. The New York Times and Washington Post have reported on the consequences of the lapse in funding along with the deep need for further recovery aid.

Disparities in Aid and Assistance

Puerto Rico’s challenges go beyond funding for nutrition assistance. Despite the grave needs that exist, the administration actively opposes any disaster aid package that provides additional funding to Puerto Rico beyond the $610 million Congress is considering for NAP.

It is difficult to view this situation without noticing the disparate treatment our government is giving Puerto Rico’s recovery compared to the rest of the country. The Government Accountability Office found that red tape was preventing the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) from dispersing Community Development Block Grant recovery funding to states and territories hit by hurricanes in 2017, and especially in Puerto Rico. Now the HUD Inspector General is investigating whether the White House interfered with disaster assistance for Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico’s disparate treatment goes beyond federal disaster aid. Puerto Ricans also have far more limited EITC and Child Tax Credit benefits compared to the rest of the country. Their Medicaid funds— like NAP—are distributed as a block grant with a significantly lower matching rate. Everywhere else in the country Medicaid is distributed as an entitlement program. In fact, Puerto Rico’s Medicaid funding will run out at the end of September unless Congress acts.

Congress Leaves for Recess as Assistance Runs Out

Members of Congress are now preparing to leave for a two-week recess. They will adjourn without giving an additional dime in desperately needed disaster assistance to an island still ravaged by a category 5 hurricane that destroyed houses, roads, schools, hospitals, and communities more than a year ago.

There is a clear racial justice angle in this that we cannot ignore. Such disparate treatment is unjust and immoral.

Leaving for the April recess without action on disaster assistance means leaving behind residents of Puerto Rico, as well as other parts of the country that struggling to recover after facing nightmarish disasters and are also waiting on disaster aid.

The urgency is real. The choice is clear. Congress needs to take action and the president must sign that bill.

Amelia Kegan

  • Legislative Director, Domestic Policy

Amelia Kegan leads the domestic policy team's work in analyzing legislation, advocating on Capitol Hill, and developing legislative strategy. Prior to coming to FCNL, Amelia worked at a variety of other national non-profits in D.C. and Chicago, focusing on federal budget, tax, and low-income policy.