Beginning July 1, Puerto Rico gets to try its hand at the New Federalism, whether it wants to or not. (It is helpful to remember that Puerto Rico has the same number of votes in Congress as the District of Columbia--none.) The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981 decreed that the traditional food stamp program for Puerto Rico was to be replaced with a block grant program. The grant was set at $825 million, about 25 percent below the existing annual $1.1 billion cost of food stamps for the commonwealth, where nearly 60 percent of the residents, 1.8 million people, get stamps.
Puerto Rico did as it was told and came up with a plan to administer the grant in the absence of all those messy food stamp regulations the Agriculture Department lays on the states. Puerto Rico decided to use direct cash payments instead of stamp coupons. There was some concern on Capitol Hill that people receiving cash would spend it for vodka instead of food, but Agriculture Secretary John R. Block approved the proposal anyway. John W. Bode, deputy assistant secretary for food and consumer services at USDA, testified last week that "We have no evidence that cash is inherently bad as compared with coupons. With incomes as low as they are in Puerto Rico, it is doubtful that less money will be spent on food. . . . Our principal concern lies with safeguarding the discretion of the commonwealth to design its own program." A number of state food stamp directors would like the same discretion, but would not like to pay the price--a cut in funding--that Puerto Rico has had to pay.