The San Juan Daily Star
Moving from PAN to SNAP could double benefits, change work & study requirements
By Alejandra M. Jover Tovar
Special to The STAR
Recently, Congress ordered a Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) Feasibility Study on the transition from the Nutrition Assistance Program (known locally by its Spanish acronym PAN) currently in effect in Puerto Rico to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) currently operating in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories of Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Center for a New Economy (CNE) in its August publication evaluates the implications of such a transition and the possibility of implementing it in Puerto Rico.
The Family Socioeconomic Development Administration (ADSEF by its Spanish acronym) manages PAN benefits and the qualification process. The agency administers the benefits for 800,000 families, roughly 1.2 million people, which is less than a third of the population of Puerto Rico. Poverty conditions, low local food production, and high tariffs on imported goods have made many people dependent on the monthly stipend.
PAN benefits allow low-income people to obtain non-prepared food at prequalified stores and markets. To receive the benefits, a person has to provide proof of income and household composition, among other requirements, and wait about a month to get an answer from ADSEF. If they qualify, they receive a monthly stipend for food; a person with no dependents receives roughly $160 monthly.
Economist Sergio M. Marxuach, who authored the analysis of the CNE study, summarized the main positive changes if the island implemented the SNAP program. Research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) shows that Puerto Rico would receive more money through SNAP, resulting in an additional 130,000 beneficiaries (a 9-12% increase) if they qualify.
Among the benefits, funding for nutritional assistance has the potential to increase from $2.6 billion in fiscal year (FY) 2023 to $4.3 billion in FY 2031. It would increase consumer spending, benefiting the overall economy and employment rates.
However, there’s a downside to the change from PAN to SNAP.
“Certain groups could lose eligibility and even their benefits,” Marxuach pointed out. “People over 60 who don’t receive the Supplemental Security Income [SSI, which is not available in Puerto Rico] could see their benefits dwindle.”
“Also, university students who, under PAN, get 100% of the benefits even if enrolled full-time, could have to study part-time and work to qualify for SNAP, just like in the States,” the economist said.
Other controversial changes include the implementation costs exceeding $400 million over a 10-year period even when the Financial Oversight and Management Board has been implementing budget cuts. Also, administering SNAP could cost between $249 and $414 million, although FNS would cover over half of that cost.
If the rollover is approved, Puerto Rico would have to implement components of SNAP that currently don’t operate on the island, such as the SNAP Employment and Training program (SNAP E&T), the SNAP Nutritional Education program (SNAP-Ed) and Disaster SNAP.
However, Marxuach sees the change as positive on the whole.
“More people qualify, and they could receive double the benefits they get now,” he said, citing a USDA study on the matter.
SNAP will work the same if Congress approves the change for Puerto Rico, a transition that could take three to ten years.
“We’ve seen a sharp rise in the prices of food items, not only because of the pandemic but also the war waged in Europe, and the costs of bringing food to Puerto Rico,” Marxuach said. “All of those conditions could taper under the SNAP benefits, but that needs federal and local legislation to temper the federal requisites with those of the local Family Department, and that can take some time.”
“The government believes this change could be done in between three and five years, depending on how fast Congress and the Puerto Rican Legislature act to make it viable,” he said. “However, it’s possible that everything stays the same … even though the government and Jenniffer González, the resident commissioner in Congress, are working on it. But first of all, it requires that the United States government change the law.”
“I think this change is important,” Marxuach continued. “The government has been publicizing the additional benefits, but we’ll have to see how the transition goes given the fact that people over the age of 60 don’t get the SSI and, if they lose benefits, they would have to return to the workforce to make ends meet.”
“Ideally, the SNAP program and the SSI should be approved for Puerto Rico simultaneously,” the economist said.