Cady Stanton of the Washington Monthly has pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic is putting a spotlight on some problems in the United States. “The coronavirus pandemic has revealed many flaws in America,” she wrote. “It has also reinforced the need to address certain geographic inequities. Case in point: D.C. and Puerto Rico are less equipped to fight the virus than most of the rest of the nation simply because they are not states.”
“Some parts of the country,” she continues, “are getting a lot less help than others.”
States will receive funds according to their populations, with the smallest states receiving at least $1.25 billion. However, all the territories — in this case including D.C. — will share $3 billion.
The $3 billion will be divided among Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and the District of Columbia, according to their populations.
D.C. expects around $500 million. D.C. is larger in population than two states and Puerto Rico has a larger population than 21 states.
Both of these jurisdictions arguably should receive the same amount as the States. Their residents are U.S. citizens who serve in the military with distinction and in great numbers. Residents of both jurisdictions pay payroll taxes and taxes on U.S. sourced income. D.C. residents pay federal income taxes; Puerto Ricans do not, but they are also ineligible for key refundable tax credits such as the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit, which would significantly reduce the island’s poverty level.
A spokesman for Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-IA), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, told the Washington Post, “Because Washington, D.C., is not a state. One can debate whether or not it should be, but that’s a separate discussion.”
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the representative for D.C. in Congress, believes that D.C. is actually in greater need than many states, because the 700,000 plus people living there are in close quarters. D.C. has more cases of COVID-19 than 19 states and all of the territories.
Puerto Rico is of course always classified as a territory. “D.C. and Puerto Rico don’t have the representatives to lobby for them when it matters,” says Stanton. “This dynamic was also on display when Congress made decisions about disaster relief for Puerto Rico following its devastating hurricanes and earthquakes. The House and Senate took months to come to a consensus about the amount of aid the territory would receive, leaving the disaster relief unresolved for a dangerous amount of time.“
Puerto Rico has 286 confirmed cases as of this writing, and 112 deaths. As with the case of Florida, it is possible that many of Puerto Rico’s cases stem from recent and sudden migration from the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut regions and elsewhere in the states where Coronavirus has been more prevalent.
The Island is at greater risk than states for several reasons:
- The mass migration of younger people to the States in recent years has left Puerto Rico with an aging population, and a higher percentage of chronic diseases than the U.S. as a whole. These characteristics put people in Puerto Rico at greater risk of serious or fatal cases of the disease.
- Puerto Rico’s healthcare system is fragile, with insufficient supplies and fewer doctors than needed. Since Medicaid funds have been much lower than those for states — and in fact inadequate for the territory’s needs — for decades, Puerto Rico has not been able to keep up.
- Transportation and access to healthcare are issues of particular concern for the rural areas.
These challenges are the direct results of inequalities in Puerto Rico resulting from the Island’s territory status. Congress is legally allowed to treat territories differently from states. States must, according to the constitution, be treated equally.
As Stanton puts it, “Puerto Ricans know the cost of not having statehood. After the devastating impacts of hurricanes Irma and Maria, the small island received nowhere near enough federal support to rebuild and recover: While HUD is required to allocate $20 billion in aid for Hurricane Maria as the result of various bills, only about $1.5 billion of that aid had been released by the end of 2019. What’s more, the House passed an additional $4.7 billion disaster recovery bill in early February—a month after the island was hit by a number of earthquakes halting reconstruction efforts—but the bill has stalled in the Senate.”
The article concludes, “It’s not merely a matter of semantics whether D.C. and Puerto Rico are classified as states and not territories. It’s one of equality and justice. People who live in those places will suffer, some will even die, because they lack the rightful political representation afforded to the rest of the country. If that’s not a good enough reason for D.C. and Puerto Rico to become states, what else is?”