With a proposal to give Puerto Rico equal coverage under federal nutrition assistance programs under consideration, U.S. Representative Glenn “GT” Thompson has asked whether Puerto Rico has the infrastructure to handle SNAP. In short, he’s wondering whether Puerto Rico can afford food stamps.
Here are a few background facts you need to know to understand the question that has been brought up regarding Puerto Rico’s ability to have the same nutrition assistance benefits as the states:
- SNAP is the federal program of nutrition assistance for needy people, also known as food stamps.
- Puerto Rico does not have SNAP, but rather has the NAP program.
- NAP provides less support to fewer people than SNAP.
- Because of the ongoing problems of territory status, Puerto Rico has a much higher level of poverty than any state.
The result of these facts is that Puerto Rico, in spite of having a greater level of need, receives less in federal nutrition support than the states do.
The USDA feasibility study
This concern may connect with a feasibility study from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The report begins by confirming that NAP is much less generous than SNAP. “In general, NAP offers significantly lower maximum benefit levels than SNAP for all household sizes,” it says. “For a family of three in July 2021, the maximum NAP block grant benefit was 51 percent of the SNAP maximum benefit.” That is, the largest amount an ordinary household can receive in Puerto Rico is just over half as much as a family of the same size living in the states. And that is the largest amount. NAP payments, unlike SNAP payments, vary from month to month, so that ordinary family will often get less than half as much as the family living in the states.
Since the cost of food is not lower in Puerto Rico than in the states, this spells hardship for needy people living in Puerto Rico. Note also that food stamp recipients living in states don’t earn enough to pay income taxes, so the typical argument that people in Puerto Rico should receive less support because they do not pay federal income tax is irrelevant. (We just wanted to get that out of the way.)
The report goes on to discuss the changes that would be required for NAP to convert to SNAP. For example, Puerto Rico would have to create an employment and training program for SNAP recipients as well as a nutrition education program. The offices might need new data management systems and workers would need to be trained on the new software. Alongside the need for new data management systems, there would be additional reporting requirements.
The report lists current partnerships and possible future connections (with the local universities, for example) that could help make these changes practical. They also recognize that there would need to be a larger staff and that there would be higher costs to administer the program when Puerto Rico begins to receive SNAP benefits. The USDA offers a rough estimate of about $40 million per year over the course of 10 years to fund the transition and points out that “The Federal Government could ease this challenge significantly by fully funding the costs of implementation.”
El Nuevo Día also reports that a shift to SNAP would bring an additional $1.7 billion to Puerto Rico each year.
What the study doesn’t say
The study doesn’t say that Puerto Rico can’t afford food stamps. Guam manages it. But Thompson seems to be worrying about that.
“I want to make sure that Puerto Rico has the infrastructure,” El Nuevo Día quoted Thompson as saying. He was concerned about the SNAP work requirement, he said, even though NAP has been planning to implement a work requirement since last October. The news source reported that Thompson has been planning to visit Puerto Rico to see firsthand how things are going, but that he hasn’t been able to find the time yet.
In fairness, the article doesn’t say that Thompson’s concerns are based on the feasibility study. The congressman’s comments reminded the reporter, Jose Delgado, of that study, which was completed last year.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Jenniffer González-Colon introduced the current bills to extend SNAP to Puerto Rico. As a state, Puerto Rico would naturally and immediately receive SNAP. As a territory, Puerto Rico can legally be treated differently from states. As Gov. Pierluisi says, “We always come out losing when rules are different for our people or the island.”