Of all Puerto Rico’s continuing miseries seven weeks after Hurricane Maria’s devastation, the most blatantly unjust is that islanders have been denied the more generous and swifter food relief distributed to storm victims this year in Texas and Florida under the emergency food stamp program.
Yes, both the island and mainland victims are United States citizens. But not all citizens are created equal: A 35-year-old congressional budget cap on Puerto Rico’s food stamp program has limited the amount of disaster aid immediately available. Texas and Florida have no such federal restraints and were able to quickly increase food stamp help in the face of the hurricane damage last summer.
It is hard to argue with Puerto Rican officials pointing to the disparity as painful evidence of a colonial second-class status suffered by citizens of this American territory, citizens who lack political clout, voting representation in Congress or a say in who’s in the White House.
Puerto Rico already was fighting bankruptcy before the hurricane hit. Since then, nearly 60 percent of the island’s power generation remains offline, its tourist and farming economies have been crippled and 100,000 of its 3.4 million residents joined a growing exodus to the mainland (where they at least will gain full federal voting rights). It will take months more to install temporary tarps on the roofs of tens of thousands of ruined houses and import more than 50,000 utility power poles and 6,500 miles of cable. There is also disturbing evidence, as Frances Robles reported in The Times, that the lack of power may be killing the very sick and the very old in overheated hospitals and nursing homes. Officials say 472 more people died this September compared with the same month last year.
The head of the island’s financial oversight panel appointed by Congress warned this week that recovery will fail without “an unprecedented scale” of emergency funds from the federal government — tens of billions of dollars to restore housing, water and electric power, and to repair infrastructure.
Food stamp aid was particularly needed in the weeks right after the disaster. But Puerto Rican officials were hobbled in offering emergency increases both to needy families already receiving aid and to others plunged into temporary need by the hurricane’s destruction. Unlike the states, the island cannot resort to the disaster relief section of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — the formal name of the food stamp program — even though all of the island was designated as a federal disaster area.
Such a one-time emergency disbursement would have averaged $478, twice the normal monthly benefit for food stamp families, according to The Washington Post. But congressional leaders contended in 1982 that the island’s reliance on food stamps was excessive and instituted a separate, tighter block grant system for Puerto Rico. It is capped this year at $1.9 billion, and has already been depleted.
As the island continues to reel, the hope is that $1.27 billion for two years of extra food stamp funding will eventually arrive under a relief package signed last month by President Trump. It would have been far better for island residents if this aid had been on tap as soon as the disaster hit, as it was in Florida and Texas. In Florida, $1.2 billion was spent on emergency food stamp help after Hurricane Irma.
President Trump is probably no more interested in this than he’s been in any of the island’s problems. “ … We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!” he tweeted a month ago. You know who must feel like it’s been forever? Hungry Puerto Ricans.