WASHINGTON — Americans in need of food shouldn’t get much less help than other citizens just because they live in Puerto Rico, lawmakers said on Capitol Hill Wednesday as they introduced a bill that would level the playing field for the island’s territory.
Low-income Americans generally get food assistance from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but Puerto Rico was locked out of that system, then known as food stamps, in 1981.
Instead, Congress awarded Puerto Rico a smaller block grant that cannot cover as many people as SNAP does, and which requires the territory to impose severe access restrictions.
It has left Puerto Rico in a situation where a low-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 receives from SNAP. .
The bill introduced Wednesday, the Puerto Rico Nutrition Assistance Equity Act, would increase aid for that family of four to $939 a month, said the bill’s lead sponsor in the Senate, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. (DN.Y.).
“These are our brothers, our sisters, American citizens who deserve this critical benefit,” Gillibrand said. “Many Puerto Ricans cannot feed their families. They cannot feed their children and they need help.”
The measure has some bipartisan support and would probably have the best chance of passage if it is 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, saying it’s a simple matter of fairness.
“It is time for the block grant system to go away, plain and simple, because it discriminates against Puerto Rico,” Schumer said. “If any other state had a block grant, they would be yelling about it, saying it’s not fair. It should be based on the number of people who need help.”
An additional complication for Puerto Rico has been a relentless series of natural disasters it has faced in recent years, from hurricanes to the pandemic. With a block grant, Puerto Rico cannot adapt to meet a greater need and must beg Congress for more money.
“This can take months,” Gillibrand said. “Can you imagine having to wait for Congress for your next meal? Can you imagine surviving a hurricane, having your home destroyed, loved ones injured or killed, and after all that, you still don’t have enough food to eat? It’s stupid.