Gov. Ralph DLG Torres reiterated that his administration’s goal is to reduce the number of Nutrition Assistance Program recipients in the CNMI and at the same time encourage family members who are eligible to work to fill the labor shortage the island is experiencing.
NAP is a federal aid program that gives assistance to low-income or no-income people with their food purchasing needs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture administers the program, also known as the food stamp program, under Food and Nutrition Services.
The CNMI would be getting an additional $30.5 million in federal funding, which was approved by USDA with the help of Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP).
Torres, in last week’s presentation at the NAP office in As Lito, said that NAP recipients would get a significant increase of 39 percent more from the amount they have been receiving; more households will also be eligible for the program. There’s a 42-percent increase in the number of recipients, from 2,600 households to 3,800.
“We had this opportunity to bring in $30 million here and assist those families who are in need. We’re reaching more in the community. At the end of the day, the community and the business sectors would benefit. This is a short-term program to assist families in need…[and] encourage people to enter the workforce,” said Torres.
“This is not to be considered a benefit that’s going to be forever. It is short term to assist families [under the program] with their needs. Ultimately, we want [people] to come out and work either as a skilled worker or you need to go to [the Northern Marianas Trades Institute]. The government is providing scholarship to institutions.”
Torres thanked Sablan, Department of Community and Cultural Affairs Secretary Robert Hunter, and NAP administrator Walter Macaranas for their help in implementing the program that was introduced in 2014 through the Agricultural Act.
He added that his administration has been encouraging recipients, who have family members that are capable of working, to enter the workforce to address the rising labor demand. “We know that there are a lot of very capable workers out there. Come out and assist the government and private sector in joining the workforce.”
“That’s one thing that I’m saying… As much as we want to help those families in need, we also want to…encourage them to come out and help us in the workforce. It is important that the food program recipients understand that in three years from now it is going to be reduced.”
Torres said the increase in the amount and number of recipients would only last for three years and it would be reduced after that. “It is not going to be here for a long time. Let us not abuse the system that is here to assist you. …That had been the administration’s goal from the beginning.”
Sablan said the USDA approved the CNMI’s plan to spend the increased benefit in four years and then transition the program to plastic cards. “A new computerized eligibility system is also being installed, making possible a conversion to plastic electronic benefit cards by 2019. Doing away with paper food stamps will increase security and convenience.
“Equal treatment for the Marianas under federal programs is a longstanding goal of your congressional office. We have been moving toward that goal since I was sworn in with a 13.6 percent food aid increase in 2010,” said Sablan. “Another $1 million in fiscal 2012, aided by the late governor Eloy S. Inos, and in 2014 increases for Rota and the Northern Islands (68 percent) and Tinian (28 percent) to make up for higher food costs there.”
Sablan said the plastic debit card would reduce the cost of printing paper food coupons and cut fraud. “It will be more convenient for store owners and for our NAP beneficiaries. The electronic benefit system is still to come but the initial work has started. And it is all being paid for with the pilot program money I worked for in 2014.”
He added that he would also invite USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue to the CNMI as part of his efforts to extend SNAP here in the Commonwealth. “We will need his support if we want to get an extension into the next Farm Bill. A visit here would get him to our side.”
Hunter said the new system ensures food security for recipients and at the same time get more people into the job market. “This is tremendously important to the people who depend on food assistance. It improves their food and nutrition options, and food security for their families.”
“If you are earning a little bit more, you could still avail yourself of food assistance, which is tremendously important to us in getting people into the job market.”
NAP administrator Macaranas said they would submit to U.S. Congress all information that they would have in the new program for its enhancement. “What we have is a four-year plan to increase benefits and eligibility standards, and use some of that money on a new system. It is a Web-based system…”
The electronic benefit card would begin in January 2019, the same period when CNMI NAP is looking to complete its eligibility system. All NAP recipients would still receive coupons with an increased amount, depending on the income of each household.