Children in Puerto Rico: The Maria Generation?

A report from the Youth Development Institute of Puerto Rico sounds a call for help for children who are still affected by Hurricane Maria — the cadre they’re calling “The Maria Generation.”

“The Impact of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico’s Children,” by Amanda Rivera Flores and Caridad Arroyo Quija, begins with a reminder that 56% of Puerto Rico’s children lived in poverty the day before Hurricane Maria hit the Island. They offer three projections of the effect of the hurricane on the children of Puerto Rico:

  • Even more children will live in poverty.
  • More families will leave the Island, making it even more difficult to sustain the local economy.
  • Children will be further threatened by mental health issues and poor academic preparation.

Hurricane Maria obviously has already had severe economic effects on the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. Many businesses closed, perhaps permanently. Many individuals lost their jobs, and life has been especially hard for those who still do not have reliable electricity and drinking water. Simply being unable to store and cook food increases the cost of living significantly. Those who still don’t have roofs over their heads are still facing significant disruption of their lives.

Beyond the general effects, however, there is the sad fact that some of the areas hardest hit — those which still do not have power in their homes and schools — were already in the worst economic position.

In the town of Patillas, for example, 74% of households with children contained one or more unemployed adults in 2016. 73% of the children lived in poverty. This is not a coincidence.

Downtown Patillas had electric power restored in December, three months after the hurricane hit. Barrio Quebrada Arriba Patillas just got electric power on March 31st, more than six months after Hurricane Maria’s landfall.

The same scenario is found in many more of the communities where unemployment and child poverty were at the highest levels before the 2017 hurricane season. Economically insecure families, the report points out, are more likely to have housing that is in poor condition and more vulnerable to destruction in a natural disaster.

Puerto Rico’s low birthrate and aging population already make it more challenging to rebuild the Island’s economy. The report points out that families with children and no jobs may be forced to leave Puerto Rico in order to find jobs, or even to find habitable homes. Looking forward, the result may be further weakening of the economy, and more child poverty.

Mental health concerns have begun to reach the headlines. Suicides have increased and opportunities for mental health treatment are insufficient. The authors of the report point to a study of mothers four years after Hurricane Katrina which found that many of these women were still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Parents who are themselves traumatized may find it difficult to help their children.

Some data on children’s academic achievement since Puerto Rico has been gathered. It suggests that children who were able to return to school, especially those in schools with high academic achievement, did not lose much ground academically.

However, there is at present no data for kids who were out of school for long periods of time, either because of disruption at home or because schools were closed for lack of electricity. The authors again turn to Hurricane Katrina, noting that New Orleans still has very high numbers of young people 16-24 who neither work nor attend school.

Puerto Rico already suffers from low labor participation. The long-term effects of Hurricane Maria could threaten Puerto Rico’s economic security for decades to come.

Solutions

Rivera Flores and Arroyo Quija propose solutions for the problems they describe.

  • Monitor poverty rates, exodus from the Island, academic achievement, youth employment, and other indicators for the next ten years. This will help in allocating resources.
  • Invest in programs focusing on economic security for families, mental health, and youth services. The authors would like to see these issues become the primary focus for nonprofits and philanthropists.
  • Advocate for children and families.

Specific areas of advocacy that could help what the authors call “the Maria generation” include federal issues.

While some may think it’s a plus that residents of Puerto Rico usually don’t have to file federal income tax returns, it’s actually a disadvantage for people who would get tax credits if they lived in a State. The Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, isn’t allowed for residents of Puerto Rico at all.The authors propose that the government of Puerto Rico create a local EITC, especially since Puerto Rico is not eligible for the federal credit. Extending the EITC to U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico would be another option.

The Child Tax Credit is available in Puerto Rico — but not equally available. Parents living in States are eligible for this credit if they have even one child, but residents of Puerto Rico must have three children to be included.Extending the credit to parents of smaller families in Puerto Rico would help defray some of the extra expenses of rebuilding after the hurricanes. The CTC is also correlated with better academic performance in kids whose families receive it.

A Disaster Dislocated Worker Grants program under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) could help to create subsidized jobs for rebuilding Puerto Rico. It could also provide training for such jobs. Telecommunications, power utilities, and other industries with specialized needs would have access to a trained workforce, and people would have job-ready skills for the long term.

The authors also call on the Fiscal Oversight board FOMB) to support families with the goal of avoiding the long-term costs of increasing child poverty. Looking toward the future, they should work to keep families in Puerto Rico and develop employable youth.

The Youth Development Institute of Puerto Rico (Instituto del Desarrollo de la Juventud) is a non-profit organization working to reduce child poverty in Puerto Rico.  Click here for the institute’s one-page summary with color graphics, “Child Poverty:  A Great Abyss for the Puerto Rican Economy.”

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