President Barack Obama is poised to sign Friday (Saturday, CNMI time) a farm and food policy bill that contains a $32.5-million pilot food stamp program for the CNMI so that it will get the full benefits of the national Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP), who has been advocating for the inclusion of the CNMI into SNAP for years, said the White House announced that the president will sign the bill on Friday in Michigan.
This comes after the U.S. Senate passed Tuesday H.R. 2642 or the Agricultural Act of 2014 that includes the five-year pilot program for the CNMI.
The bill drew a bipartisan majority of 44 Democrats, 22 Republicans, and two Independents.
“We are part of the American family, so our families deserve the same help putting food on the table that other Americans receive,” Sablan said in a statement yesterday. “Getting into SNAP means equal treatment for the people of the Northern Marianas. Whether it is food aid or education funding or any of the policies we work on in Congress, our goal is always to be treated as Americans.”
Sablan became a member of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee in 2011 and has worked for the last three years to get his constituents into SNAP.
At present, the CNMI receives a block grant from the federal government for its local food stamp program. The block grant does not change when the number of families getting benefits goes up. Each family just gets less assistance.
In nearby Guam, which is under the national program, benefits are double what they are in the CNMI, Sablan said. When the number of beneficiaries increases, federal funding also goes up.
“A family of four in the NMI gets $444 a month. A family of four in Guam gets $931. That’s not fair. But this new $32.5 million we added to the farm bill will raise benefits here in the Northern Marianas and fix the unfairness,” Sablan said.
Gov. Eloy S. Inos, when sought for comment yesterday, said getting the CNMI into the national food stamp program would help circulate more money in the local economy of some $20 million a year.
However, he said he also has “mixed feelings” about it.
“If the SNAP comes in raising the threshold—the poverty level or the income level qualification—those folks might just not work because now they wouldn’t be able to qualify. It could be a disincentive to work,” Inos told Saipan Tribune.
But the governor said this can be remedied by enforcing the rules.
“Even if you are willing and able to work, even if you fall within the eligible criteria, you need to show that you have applied and you have been rejected, and you can’t be hired. It’s not an automatic thing,” he said.
Sablan said the farm and food policy bill sets up a five-year pilot program for the CNMI that begins with a $2 million feasibility study in 2014 and 2015, and then raises benefits in the following three years.
Even if the study shows that SNAP will not work on the islands, he said the Commonwealth’s existing block grant program will still receive $30.5 million for benefits in addition to its current funding.
Sablan said he has been working to get more food for poor families since he was first elected to Congress in 2009.
At the time, he said, the food stamp block grant was $10.187 million a year. This year, Congress appropriated $12.148 million for the CNMI program.
Sablan said when the bill becomes law, it will make another $13.5 million available for benefits beginning in October 2015. There are an additional $8.5 million in 2016 and again in 2017, he added.
The delegate’s ultimate goal is to have the CNMI fully incorporated in SNAP, so that as economic conditions vary, the amount of federal funding can also change.
“Looking ahead, just when our five-year pilot program is nearing its end in 2017, it will be time for Congress to reauthorize farm and food policy again. That will be the perfect legislative opportunity to finish the job of giving the people of the Northern Marianas equal participation in SNAP as part of the American family,” he said.
Once Obama signs the bill into law, more steps still need to be taken to bring the CNMI into SNAP.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is given $2 million to begin immediately looking at how SNAP can be implemented in the CNMI. In this initial study, USDA will be asking whether the CNMI has the administrative capability.
Sablan believes it is feasible to set up the plastic credit card system the rest of the country uses to replace the paper food stamps that the CNMI still uses.
He said the electronic benefit system, or EBT, will help the CNMI reduce the reselling of paper stamps and other kinds of fraud that can give the program a bad name.
USDA will also look closely at education and job training opportunities in the CNMI.
Sablan earlier said he does not want food stamps to be a way of life in the CNMI, but only as a safety net “to help people until they can help themselves.”