CHICAGO, Illinois — For more than 100 years, citizens of Puerto Rico have been subject to the taxes, military drafts and laws voted on by the representatives in the United States federal government. Over the same period of time, these citizens have had no ability to determine how much taxes they pay, the rules that govern their society or who the U.S. goes to war with. Democratic representation is not the only area where Puerto Rico differs from the country that governs it. While the U.S. sported an overall poverty rate of around 13.1% in 2018, impoverishment in Puerto Rico sat at a level of 43.1% in 2018. Beset by a number of crises in the past decade, citizens living in Puerto Rico continue to struggle to meet their basic needs.
Puerto Rico’s Political Status:
The situation Puerto Rico finds itself in is that of a U.S. territory. This status first came about after the U.S. won a war against Spain for control over the island in the late 19th century. Nearly two decades later, the U.S. granted Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship status, though their rights have limits. In the early 1950s, the island officially became a commonwealth, which is the status it maintains officially today. This gave the island more autonomy, but ultimate power remained in the hands of the U.S. federal government, which island residents do not have the right to vote for.
How the Island’s Status as a Territory Impacts Poverty
Though its political status is not the sole cause of poverty in Puerto Rico, the lack of federal investment or choice over economic policy that comes from its limited sovereignty puts the population at a significant disadvantage.
One area where this disadvantage plays out is in the field of medical care. Government-funded public health care plans provide insurance to most of the island’s residents. Due to federal limits on spending in territories, the programs in Puerto Rico rarely receive proper funding. For instance, research from 2013 estimates that Puerto Rico usually receives a federal reimbursement rate of around 23% for Medicaid, but if it were a state, its needs show that it would receive 83% reimbursement.
Basic health indicators demonstrate the impact of these disparities. In 2017, the prevalence of diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure stood 6.7% and 12.4% higher, respectively, in Puerto Rico than in the mainland U.S.
SNAP Versus NAP
Another area where the territorial status has had an impact on poverty in Puerto Rico is its food systems. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP, is a tool used by the federal government to help provide greater access to food for needy families in the U.S. Puerto Rico does not have access to this. Instead, it relies on a program known as the Nutritional Assistance Program (NAP), which came about in 1981. While SNAP uses a flexible budget to adjust to the needs of the poor that it serves, NAP provides a fixed amount of money that requires a vote in Congress in order for funding to be increased.
Before the hurricanes of 2017 and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, 1.5 million Puerto Ricans, including more than half of all Puerto Rican children, experienced food insecurity. When disaster struck and needs increased, these people found themselves dealing with an inflexible food welfare system.
Statehood as a Solution
In response to the inequality that exists between the impoverishment in Puerto Rico and the rest of the nation that governs it, lawmakers in Congress and on the island have taken up the fight for statehood. Statehood would offer up to $12.5 billion more in federal benefits and give Puerto Ricans a say in the politics that affect them the most.
In 2020, Puerto Rico held a non-binding referendum on the question of the island’s status, asking voters if the commonwealth should be admitted as a U.S state. Voters responded with 52.5% in support of statehood, but despite the majority, only Congress has the power to grant it the status of statehood. Still, a large percentage of the island does not support statehood.
The Puerto Rico Status Act
In May 2022, members of Congress drafted legislation for the Puerto Rico Status Act, a bill that would offer Puerto Ricans a chance to cast a binding vote themselves for whether the island will receive “statehood, independence [or]sovereignty in free association.” The bill was advanced to the House floor by the Natural Resources Committee in July 2022.
There are other policy measures that Congress could take to have an immediate effect on poverty that Puerto Ricans experience. One such proposal is to repeal the Jones Act. This law, created in 1920, mandates that Puerto Ricans only use ships owned and operated by the U.S. for transportation of goods between the mainland and the island. This has the effect of escalating prices for goods. The abolition of this act could reduce impoverishment in Puerto Rico by creating more than 13,000 job opportunities and adding $1.5 billion to Puerto Rico’s economy, says a 2019 study.
Whatever solutions end up going forward, the current position appears increasingly untenable for both Puerto Ricans and many members of Congress. In a May 2022 press conference in support of the Puerto Rico Status Act, House Majority Leader, Rep, Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said, “Puerto Rican people do not want to be a colony, and the United States of America does not want to be a colonialist power.”
– Joey Harris
Photo: Wikimedia Commons