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Without more federal funds, 1.4 million Puerto Ricans will face food aid cuts, study finds

Puerto Rico: The exodus after Hurricane Maria

Washington — Approximately 1.4 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico will lose a substantial amount of their food benefits or lose them completely if congressional leaders and the White House do not approve more funding for the island's nutritional program, according to a study released Tuesday. 

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a Washington D.C.-based think tank, analyzed statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to find that Puerto Ricans enrolled in the Nutrition Assistance for Puerto Rico (NAP) — the island's version of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — will begin to face deep food aid cuts in March unless the program receives more funding. According to the analysis, the maximum food assistance for a family of four could decline from $649 a month to $410.

"This isn't money that Puerto Rico is using for some vanity project. It's not like a shiny new terminal at an airport. It's literally money for the most basic of needs — which in this case is food," Javier Balmaceda, a senior policy analyst at the CBPP and the analysis' author, told CBS News. 

The popular multi-billion dollar program operated by the USDA provides supplemental income to hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans so they can meet their nutritional needs. Unlike SNAP, funding for NAP can't expand to meet increased demand. Instead, it is funded through an annual federal block grant of about $2 billion. 

In October 2017, President Trump and Congress approved nearly $1.27 billion in additional NAP funding to help meet increased demand for food benefits following the devastation caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria. In recent months, however, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and other Puerto Rican officials have lobbied Congress and the White House for more disaster aid funding for NAP. 

Based on his analysis, Balmaceda estimates that the disaster aid funding will be depleted in March. When that occurs, he said many of the 1.3 million Puerto Ricans enrolled in NAP will likely see cuts to their benefits, while approximately 100,000 people who enrolled in the program after the hurricanes struck the island could loose all of their assistance. 

Rosselló's $600 million request for disaster NAP funding has garnered bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, including from freshman Sen. Rick Scott, R-Florida, but the White House has strongly opposed it. When the amount was included in a Democratic-sponsored spending bill to reopen the government in January, the Trump administration called it "excessive and unnecessary," provoking scathing criticism from Puerto Rican officials and Democratic lawmakers. 

Balmaceda said the White House's characterization of the request is deeply flawed. "It is not unnecessary. It is quite vital and at this moment, critical because Puerto Rico is still recovering from the hurricanes," he said. 

In a letter obtained by CBS News, Rosselló urged congressional leaders to include the funds in spending legislation to avert another government shutdown in the coming weeks. The governor also confirmed the broad ramifications of a lack of additional NAP funds outlined by the CBPP analysis. 

"Failure to approve the additional $600 million in NAP disaster relief for Puerto Rico would force us to reduce the program enrollment and decrease monthly benefit levels to a level below those in the states," Rosselló wrote in a February 5 letter addressed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. 

Read the full letter here:

Failure to approve the $600 million in NAP funding, the governor added, would cause an "excessive delay" in the island's efforts to stabilize its ballooning debt-crisis and prompt more Puerto Ricans to move to the mainland seeking better opportunities. 

Carlos Mercader, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, which represent's the island's government in the U.S., told CBS News Tuesday that Rosselló received a "commitment" from Schumer that Democrats will focus on including the relief funds in budget negotiations when he attended the State of the Union address on Tuesday as the New York senator's guest. Mercader said the governor's office is "optimistic" about getting enough bipartisan support in Congress to obtain the $600 million in NAP funds. 

The White House, however, has not signaled any change or reversal in its stance on Rosselló's request. 

Still, Mercader is hoping that statistics on the potential impact of the absence of further NAP funding can change some minds in the administration. 

"I think data can convince anyone," he said. "And we believe that the inequalities of the people of Puerto Rico are evident."