The most recent Community Report of the U.S. Census (2010) indicated that 56% of Puerto Rico’s children live in poverty. However, the 2014 Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT® Data Book reports that 83% of Puerto Rico’s children lived in “high poverty areas” as of 2012. That number is startlingly higher than the numbers for the states. Even Mississippi and New Mexico, the poorest states in the United States, show only 28% and 22% of their children in this position, respectively. (The District of Columbia, also not a state, shows up at 31%.)
What does it mean to live in a high poverty area, and how does that differ from living in poverty?
First, the official poverty level may not tell the whole story. The foundation explains that the national poverty level is outdated and may not capture the reality of modern life. In 1963, the poverty level was defined as three times the cost of basic food for a family. Now, the costs of housing, transportation, and childcare for working parents are much higher in relation to the price of the cheapest food. It is possible for a child to have enough to eat and yet still face some of the consequences of poverty.
High poverty areas, areas in which the majority of the residents are below the official poverty level, are more likely to have problems with crime and less likely to have the educational opportunities of more affluent neighborhoods. Access to health care and healthy foods may also be limited.
As Puerto Rico’s economy has declined since 2010, it is possible that the 56% U.S. Census childhood poverty rate from that year has inched toward the 83% “high poverty” level found in the Casey Foundation’s 2014 report.
What does this mean for Puerto Rico’s future?
- Claims that Puerto Rico can offer an educated workforce for new companies moving to the territory are less plausible when contrasted with the fact that most of the children in Puerto Rico live in poverty and are likely to lack educational and enrichment opportunities.
- Puerto Ricans are leaving their island for the mainland in record numbers, often in order to give their children a better chance for the future. As young people and families leave, the population of Puerto Rico is aging. The result will be a smaller workforce and fewer innovative new businesses.
- The children of Puerto Rico do not have the kind of safety net children have in the States, and may not have the same opportunities. Those who are living in poverty in Puerto Rico are less likely to have family tax credits, for example, which have been found to encourage investment in education on the mainland. It is possible that it is not only more common to live in poverty in Puerto Rico, but also more difficult to grow out of it.
Much of the discussion of Puerto Rico’s economic crisis has focused on Puerto Rico bonds, taxes, and possible strategies to reinvigorate the economy. Yet there are human costs of the current economic challenges, too, and, if left unresolved, these human costs can be expected to continue an unfortunate economic downward spiral as well.