(CNSNews.com) – The federal government spent more than $2 billion to provide food stamps to residents of Puerto Rico in 2012, up to 25 percent of which is untraceable because it is distributed in cash and there is “no way to verify that funds are spent on food,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The funds are used to supply more than one-third of the population of Puerto Rico with food stamps.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP) for Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory of the United States, received $2 billion in Nutrition Assistance Block Grants in fiscal year 2012.
Part of that total includes funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), popularly known as the “economic stimulus,” which passed in 2009 -- $165 million in economic stimulus funds went to food stamps in Puerto Rico in FY 2012.
The $165 million in stimulus funding is on top of $494.3 million in food stamp grants to Puerto Rico from the ARRA in FY 2009 and 2010. Stimulus spending will continue towards the program this year, with an estimated $101.3 million in FY 2013.
A spokesman from the USDA Food and Nutrition Service told CNSNews.com that, on average, 1.37 million people received food stamps in Puerto Rico each month in FY 2012. Puerto Rico has a population of 3.7 million, meaning 37 percent of Puerto Ricans are on food stamps paid by the federal government.
Puerto Rico currently has an unemployment rate of 14.2 percent. The median household income is $19,122 per year.
Nationwide, there are currently 47.7 million Americans on food stamps, representing 15.2 percent of the population of 313.9 million. There is, however, a record one-out-of-five households in the United States receiving food stamps.
Instead of operating the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Puerto Rico administers block grants, among which 25 percent of a person’s benefit can be paid in cash, which means there is no way of tracking how the money is spent. (The average monthly benefit in FY 2009 was $240, meaning a recipient could receive up to $60 in cash, according to a 2010 feasibility report.)
A 2010 USDA report on the feasibility of implementing SNAP in Puerto Rico said that it is “widely acknowledged” that recipients of the current food assistance program in the country use the cash for items other than food.
“Like SNAP, NAP distributes benefits on an EBT debit card,” the report said. “However, unlike SNAP, up to 25 percent of the monthly benefit may be redeemed for cash.”
“Although the cash is designated for eligible food items, it is widely acknowledged that participants use at least some of their allotted cash for non-food essentials, such as medicine and hygiene products,” the USDA said.
A USDA spokesman told CNSNews.com that there is “no way to verify the funds are spent on food.”
“When cash is withdrawn from an ATM, there is no way to verify that funds are spent on food, however, the 25 percent provided in cash is designated for food purchases,” the USDA said. “One of the main reasons that provisions of 25 percent of the benefits in cash was built into the program was to allow participants without access to certified retailers a way to purchase food.”
Funding from the stimulus law is also administered through cash grants, as an alternative to SNAP, to “improve diets of needy persons residing in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.”
The Food Stamp Program (FSP) began in Puerto Rico on Nov. 1, 1974. That program was replaced with the current system of block grants in 1982.
The eligibility requirements for NAP in Puerto Rico vary according to household size, ranging from a maximum income level of $2,796 per year for a one-person household, up to $12,708 per year for a seven-person household.
The USDA report, Implementing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in Puerto Rico: A Feasibility Study, was prepared in response to a directive from Congress. The USDA said they are not aware of any plans to replace the food assistance program in Puerto Rico with SNAP, and such an action would require change in the law.