Our Fellow Citizens in Puerto Rico Need Us

By Nune Phillips

More than two weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, most of the island is still without power and only about half of its residents have usable water. Access to basic services such as food and health care is limited. And housing—both temporary and long-term—along with transportation and mobile phone connectivity are ongoing challenges.

Although Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, Puerto Rico is a territory, rather than a state, and its residents have less access to core income and work support programs than people in states or Washington D.C. Both nutritional assistance and medical programs are capped, so they cannot respond to increased need the way the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) and Medicaid do in states.

Prior to the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria, roughly 40 percent of Puerto Ricans relied on the Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP) to meet their households’ food needs. NAP is Puerto Rico’s food assistance program, an alternative to SNAP. NAP is funded through a capped block grant, although a feasibility study showed that a traditional SNAP program would provide a greater monthly food allotment to a wider net of eligible households. To address the immediate food needs of those affected by the hurricane, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has implemented a set of temporary measures, including a policy that allows Puerto Ricans displaced to states by the hurricane to apply for SNAP in the area where they are currently residing. The agency also approved a waiver to allow NAP to be temporarily used to purchase ready-to-eat meals and is distributing meals, water, infant formula, and baby food to those in need. However, because Puerto Rico does not have SNAP, it is not able to run a disaster SNAP program that provides short-term additional benefits to people affected by disasters, as Texas and Florida recently did.

Health care for poor and low-income Puerto Ricans is provided through Medicaid, which is also funded by a capped block grant. A recent Congressional proposal to send an additional $1 billion in Medicaid funds is insufficient. The block grant structure of Medicaid in Puerto Rico, coupled with a significant match required of the territory, does not allow the program to meet the health needs of Puerto Rico’s low-income residents during typical times, and certainly not during the dire current situation.

The current efforts and proposals are welcome but provide only temporary fixes. Puerto Rico’s economic crisis predates this year’s storm season. With the territory’s poverty rate of 46 percent and an unemployment rate of 10 percent, compounded by its $74 billion in debt, Puerto Rico is ill equipped to handle what will inevitably be a greater need for basic support services. Recovery from Hurricane Maria could take years. Congress must take action to provide immediate additional support to meet the basic needs of individuals and families there. Improvements to SNAP and Medicaid should also be part of a package of long-term solutions to grow the island’s economy.

Puerto Ricans—our fellow Americans—need help. It is time for Congress to step up and take action. A comprehensive recovery package, including additional funds to immediately increase the reach of food assistance and health care programs and long-term fixes to the capped structure of these programs, is crucial for Puerto Rico to recover and rebuild from the devastation and damage inflicted by Maria.