More than 3,800 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Puerto Rico, and there have been more than 100 deaths from the virus. Puerto Rico was one of the first U.S. jurisdictions to shut down businesses and impose stay at home orders, but the territory has been cautiously reopening businesses. Beaches and malls will also reopen, though the governor says, “We will have to be disciplined.”
Puerto Rico’s healthcare system is fragile; the infrastructure has not been fully rebuilt since Hurricane Maria in 2017 and a swarm of earthquakes this year.
However, the economic costs of the pandemic are also very serious in Puerto Rico. Economist José Caraballo estimates that the pandemic has cost Puerto Rico $6 billion to $12 billion, according to The Washington Post.
Food insecurity is one of the major issues.
The Food Bank of Puerto Rico is serving almost twice as much food now as it did before the pandemic. Just as in the states, Puerto Rico’s families have been put into a more food insecure position by the closing of the schools where many children could be sure of receiving breakfast and lunch.
In addition, Puerto Rico’s NAP, the territory’s version of the SNAP or food stamp program, receives a block grant. In the states, the amount provided in the food stamps program increases when there is greater need. In Puerto Rico, the block grant limits available food supplements, regardless of need.
With strict business closures in place, many residents of the Island have been out of work. NAP doesn’t provide the backup that SNAP does. The government in Puerto Rico has received more than 120,000 new applications for NAP, but those applications don’t come with additional funding.
Equitable Nutrition Assistance
Rep. Nydia Velázquez and Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced the Equitable Nutrition Assistance for the Territories Act of 2020, which would treat territories like Puerto Rico equally with states under the food stamp program. If this act becomes law, Puerto Rico would not face the kind of food insecurity that now threatens the Island.
A number of other members of Congress have made similar efforts. The CARES act included some funds for Puerto Rico, including the Economic Impact Payments or stimulus checks, and the new HEROES Act proposed by the House of Representatives has significant support for the territories.
Unfortunately, laws that give Puerto Rico privileges of a state do not actually confer equality on Puerto Rico.
For one thing, the current Congress can give Puerto Rico a benefit of this kind, and the next Congress can take it away.
States are all equal. Every new state has full equality with all the other states under the U.S. Constitution. Laws passed by Congress do not have this permanence.
For another thing, Puerto Rico has not received the amount of funding which Congress has allocated. Just about 20% of eligible residents have received stimulus checks, which people instates received in March or April. Unemployments benefits have not been distributed. FEMA announced today that $19 million in grants for rebuilding from Hurricane Maria (which hit in 2017) were obligated — not paid out, but obligated — last month.
Federal responses to disaster needs in Puerto Rico are, in short, slow. As a state, Puerto Rico would not have to wait for payouts in this way.
Each new disaster makes it clear that statehood is the only way Puerto Rico can gain equality with the states.
Vote YES in the November 3rd plebiscite if you live in Puerto Rico. Tell your legislators that you want to see equality forPuerto Rico through statehood if you live in a state.
Either way, be sure to register to vote. Voters have a voice.