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(GFR Media)
(GFR Media)

WASHINGTON.- 1.35 million Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP) participants in Puerto Rico are getting smaller checks and in some cases that represents a third of what they usually received. 

According to Family Affairs secretary Glorimar Andújar, this is because on February 28, the $1,27 billion in nutrition assistance, allocated to Puerto Rico to address the emergency caused by Hurricane María, have run out.

However, regular PAN funds,  "contingency" funds,  and population reduction in the last 18 months will allow to retain the nearly 300,000 participants who joined the program when eligibility criteria became more flexible, after Congress passed $ 1,27 billion in emergency funds. 

However, this month, without the new $ 600 million package requested by the government of Puerto Rico, that is still in Congress, PAN participants are starting to feel the effects, since payments are reaching the levels they had before funds to address the emergency were allocated, warned Andújar. 

The Secretary of Family Affairs stressed that when Puerto Rican authorities said that emergency funds were running out in March, they meant that it would not be available this month. "We go back to the original numbers. Emergency assistance was meant to last a year," she added. 

The federal government has authorized the new participants to remain in the program; that is, those who joined PAN when income eligibility standards were modified after the approval of $1,27 billion in October 2917. However, that means that everyone will receive less money compared to the past 12 months. 

When the government of Puerto Rico received the $ 1.27 billion in emergency funds, it agreed with the US Department of Agriculture to raise the maximum income eligibility level to $ 2,033 a month the for a family to access PAN. 

For example, a family of four with $2,033 net income per month received $ 649 monthly last year, the same amount as in the mainland. Now, the benefit will return to the $ 410 per month they received before the $ 1,27 billion allocation. 

In the case of older adults who live alone, if they received $ 194 per month last year, this month they will see their checks reduced to $ 112. In Guam, where - as in U.S. states- the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is available,  older adults receive $ 287. 

According to the most recent eligibility standards - a formula that includes income and family composition, and factors such as the number and age of dependents and if there are people with disabilities - participants will remain in PAN if they do not earn more than $ 616 per month. 

Before emergency assistance came into effect, the maximum income was $ 233 per month. In the U.S., the maximum income for a person receiving SNAP benefits is $ 1,005 per month. 

Access to PAN depends on a household poverty level. In September 2017, PAN included 649,654 families or 1.23 million people. Last February, the total increased to 771,091 families and 1.35 million people, including the 167,192 families or 299.08 people who joined the program when  eligibility standards changed. 

Waiting for Congress to decide

Although the Democratic-controlled House approved the allocation of an additional $ 600 million package in nutrition assistance funds to supplement NAP -as part of a bill to mitigate recent natural disasters-, the proposal did not advance in the Senate. 

"We have to start from the premise that additional funds have not been granted to us,” Andújar said, confirming the adjustments made this month. 

Although Senate Democrats tried unsuccessfully, to approve the measure during the partial government shutdown, Republicans rejected the bill. 

A few days ago, a group of Senate Republicans filed a measure to mitigate recent natural disasters, which includes the $ 600 million package in nutrition assistance for the island. 

Senator Rick Scott (Florida), one of the sponsors of the Republican bill, said talks with the Senate leadership continue. Scott said that it is ridiculous how long things take. 

Last week, Senate Democrats, led by Robert Menéndez (New Jersey), warned  Congress leadership that there are other issues regarding Puerto Rico in the bill passed in the House that should be included in any measure to address natural disasters. 

Along with the $ 600 million package, the Senate Republican bill includes the allocation of $ 5 million to finance a study on the impact of emergency nutrition assistance after the catastrophe caused by Hurricane María. 

However, Democratic senators recalled, among other things, that the bill includes a language that would allow the waiver from FEMA matching requirements for Puerto Rico, and $ 25 million for the restoration of the Caño Martín Peña.