Judge Rules that the U.S. Discriminates against Puerto Rico

Federal Judge William G. Young ruled on the difference between the treatment of Puerto Rico and the states in three federal programs.

The programs involved in the court case:

  • Supplemental Security Income, which provides extra income for the elderly, blind, or disabled
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or NAP in Puerto Rico, the food stamps program
  • Medicare Part D Low-Income Subsidy, which helps cover the cost of prescription drugs

“The federal safety net is flimsier and more porous in Puerto Rico than in the rest of the nation,” he wrote. “To be blunt, the federal government discriminates against Americans who live in Puerto Rico.”

The First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled earlier this year that residents of Puerto Rico could not be denied Supplemental Security Income (SSI) merely because they live in Puerto Rico. In that case, an individual was receiving SSI when living in a state. He moved to Puerto Rico and his benefits were cut. The court ruled that this was discriminatory.

Rational basis

The federal government is allowed to treat territories differently from states, as long as the differences have a “rational basis.” The government has generally supported different treatment for Puerto Rico with three arguments:

  • Residents of Puerto Rico are generally exempt from federal income tax. Judge Williams pointed out that these “safety net” programs are only available to people who earn too little to pay income tax, wherever they live.
  • The cost of extending these programs to Puerto Rico would be very high. It is true that Puerto Rico has a higher poverty level than that of any state. Does the government really get to say they don’t feel like paying for nutrition assistance because it seems too expensive?
  • Treating Puerto Rico fairly “might disrupt the island’s economy.” The idea here is that people might choose to live entirely on Social Security and food stamps, rather than working, if they received amounts that people could live on. Young pointed out that these programs do not vary from one state to another on the basis of the poverty levels in the states. It seems odd, in any case, to decide that an economy which is currently in a desperate condition caused by its territorial status would somehow be “disrupted” by providing needy people with food and health care.

Judge Young also pointed out “that from 2000 to 2005, Puerto Rico residents paid more in federal taxes than six states and all other U.S. territories combined. In addition, he wrote that in fiscal year 2019, the federal government collected more than $3.5 billion in taxes from Puerto Rico residents,” according to the New York Times.

The court also gave a stay of 60 days for the federal government to appeal. Observers say that the case may go to the Supreme Court.

If Puerto Rico must be treated equally with states, would Congress be more open to statehood for Puerto Rico? Every territory which has become a state has become more prosperous as a state than it was as a territory. Puerto Rico would be able too contribute more as a state than it now does as a territory. As Puerto Rico prepares for another status vote, this court decision might encourage support for statehood.

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