Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Congress Misses Deadline To Reauthorize Funding For Food Stamps In Puerto Rico


Puerto Rico is paring back food stamp benefits to the more than 1 million people who depend on them. That's because the island relies on Washington to fund its food stamp program, and Congress has still not reauthorized that money. Legislation is now moving through Congress to provide that food stamp aid, but President Trump reportedly told Republican senators yesterday that he thinks Puerto Rico has gotten too much aid since Hurricane Maria struck the island a year and a half ago.

We're joined now by Mayita Melendez. She's mayor of the city of Ponce. Welcome.

MAYITA MELENDEZ: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to talk with you and the people of our mainland.

CHANG: Well, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. You know, I was struck by the statistic that I read. I understand 43 percent of Puerto Ricans depend on food stamps. I mean, that's like 1.3 million people. What sort of impact have these cuts in aid had already?

MELENDEZ: Well, let me tell you, Ailsa. About 47 percent of the people of Puerto Rico are below poverty. So 43 percent of those people need the food stamp, and we're asking for this aid. For many months we have been asking. And people have to know that we the Puerto Rican people are American citizens.

CHANG: Right.

MELENDEZ: And we deserve the same treatment as the rest of all the Americans from Maine to Hawaii and everywhere in between.

CHANG: What kind of stories are you hearing from people in your city? How are they getting through this time without enough food stamps right now?

MELENDEZ: Yes, we are hearing about it because people said they don't have enough money because they are poor people.

CHANG: Yeah.

MELENDEZ: So they need those money to buy the food and maintain their family at the same time even though they are working at the same time. So they are scared, and it creates instability to them.

CHANG: Right. Now, President Trump has suggested he does support the $600 million for food stamps for Puerto Rico that's included in the disaster aid legislation. But so he says, he doesn't want any more than that for Puerto Rico more broadly. I understand that you have traveled to Washington several times to ask for more funding after Maria hit. What do you think of the president's reluctance to give more aid?

MELENDEZ: We need the U.S. government to release the assigned recovery funds to Puerto Rico and that the federal government continues assigning funds through relevant agencies for Puerto Rico recovery. And this investment will not only help the people but will resolve in saving for the federal government because we are exposed every six months - every six months from June the first to December the first - to hurricane season.

CHANG: Right.

MELENDEZ: So if we construct resilient houses, if we have the power of electricity - and we will not have to ask for more money for the helping if we are prepared.

CHANG: I want to address what it seems like the president is concerned with. A White House spokesperson told The Washington Post that the administration is just unwilling to put taxpayers on the hook to correct a decades-old spending crisis that has left Puerto Rico with big economic problems. Do you think there's any merit to that pushback, that taxpayers shouldn't be responsible for Puerto Rico's fiscal problems?

MELENDEZ: We pay more money than the persons that are living in mainland, so - in some places. So people have to understand that we all support what we all have to receive from FEMA up until now, but we cannot be left alone to fix this problem without broader support. We need that support, and we are suffering. You understand that we are suffering after Category 5 hurricane. We have never suffered Category 5 hurricane season, so the destruction was unprecedented. I hope the president is going to change his mind before it is too late for the Puerto Rican people. We need to continue to work together as a nation, and we need to be treated equally as part of the nation.

CHANG: Mayita Melendez is the mayor of the city of Ponce. Thank you very much for joining us.

MELENDEZ: For me, it was a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.