Persistent Poverty in Puerto Rico

The Congressional Subcommittee on Housing, Community Development, and Insurance held a hearing entitled “Persistent Poverty in America: Addressing Chronic Disinvestment in Colonias, the Southern Black Belt, and the U.S. Territories” on Tuesday, November 15, 2022.

These were the witnesses:

  • Amber Arriaga-Salinas, Assistant Executive Director, Proyecto Azteca
  • Yarimar Bonilla, Director, Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College
  • Kiyadh Burt, Vice President of Policy & Advocacy and Interim Director, HOPE Policy Institute
  • Lance George, Director of Research and Information, Housing Assistance Council
  • Chris Potterpin, President of Development, PK Companies

Written documents also include a memo from the House Financial Services Committee Majority Staff.

Staff memo

The hearing opened with recognition that the Build Back Better Act would have provided funding to cope with some of the problems of persistent poverty. Rep. French Hill (R-AR) reviewed attempts to work on poverty, particularly in rural areas. “It seems like it’s a great time to rethink this strategy as we try to tackle it,” he concluded, mentioning a need for education, broadband, and economic opportunities.

While persistent poverty is found in all municipalities of Puerto Rico, witnesses identified rural areas of the Island as subject to greater degrees of poverty than the urban areas.

Persistent poverty in Puerto Rico

In her written testimony, the first witness, Yarimar Bonilla, wrote, “The US government defines ‘persistent poverty counties’ as those that maintained poverty rates of 20% or more for at least 30 years. But the fact is that Puerto Rico has had twice that poverty rate for over half a century,”

She continued, “We must thus ask if the challenges that Puerto Rico and the other US territories face are best understood through the framework of persistent poverty, or if it is best to think of their condition as one of systemic poverty rooted in their political relationship to the United States.”

“The U.S. Supreme Court has established (in Vaello-Madero v U.S., 2022) that congress has the power and authority to treat Puerto Rico differently than the states,” Bonilla reminded the Subcommittee Members. “Until now, this has been interpreted as a congressional right to treat Puerto Rico worse than a state by leaving it out of critical federal programs (such as SSI). However, Congress could just as easily lean on the territorial clause to treat Puerto Rico better, by addressing its particularities and the historic legacies of systemic poverty. We wish to remind the committee that equality is not the same as equity.”

Bonilla asked Congress to stop excluding Puerto Rico from programs designed to help the needy.

She also pointed out the lack of data on Puerto Rico and the other territories. The FSC majority staff memo reiterated this claim, saying, “While U.S. territories have unique histories and are geographically and demographically diverse from one another, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Mariana Islands, the Virgin Islands, and American Samoa all suffer from persistent poverty, chronic disinvestment, and trends of population loss. However, a lack of current, consistent, and comprehensive data on housing, employment, and other factors makes it difficult to fully analyze these trends.”

Housing issues

Bonilla pointed out that the cost of living in Puerto Rico is often actually higher than on the mainland, in spite of the fact that the poverty level in Puerto Rico is much higher than that of any state. Housing is particularly expensive, and casual ownership of property has made it difficult for residents of Puerto Rico to get assistance which is available to residents of states.

“Puerto Rico has been grappling in recent years, especially in the wake of hurricanes, with growing trends of gentrification and displacement,” the staff memo reported. “Meanwhile, nearly half of Puerto Ricans—renters and homeowners—pay 30% or more of their income on housing compared to 38% of households nationwide.”

Lance George, Director of Research and Information, Housing Assistance Council made some specific  observations that apply to Puerto Rico:

  • Areas of persistent poverty are not random, but are geographically connected.
  • The majority of these areas have been in a state of persistent poverty for decades. Puerto Rico, he said, shows persistent poverty in all its municipalities.
  • People of color are overrepresented in these areas.
  • Local organizational resources and access to capital are the factors that HAC sees as the most important solutions to housing problems in areas facing persistent poverty.

The “colonial situation”

Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) began her statement during the question period by saying that “poverty in Puerto Rico is directly linked to the colonial situation in Puerto Rico.”

“Congress has a responsibility for resolving this issue,” she continued. She mentioned the problems with HUD following Hurricane Maria, when excessive barriers and red tape were imposed on Puerto Rico based on unsupported stereotypes about corruption on the Island.

Velazquez also referred to the problem of a lack of data on Puerto Rico. Asking Bonilla’s opinion on this question, Velazquez insisted on the need for accurate data about the territories, and about Puerto Rico in particular.

Bonilla pointed out that “over-scrutiny” and a lack of Spanish language translation services are affecting the recovery process after Hurricane Fiona as well.

“One of the root causes of persistent poverty in Puerto Rico is the Insular Cases, which to me represents a continuation of Jim Crow” said Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY) in his question. He called the unincorporated territory status of Puerto Rico “a second-class status fabricated by the United States Supreme Court.”

“Do you think there is a single state in the United States that could absorb the fiscal shock of losing all of its SSI funding, all of its SNAP funding, and most of its Medicaid funding?” he asked Bonilla.

“Obviously not,” she responded.

“When the federal government denies access to federal programs that are crucial to the fiscal solvency of just about every state, is it fair to say that the United State by denying the Island access to that which is essential, has essentially set Puerto Rico up to fail?”

Torrres called for the overturn of the Insular Cases. Bonar stated that the Insular Cases provide an excuse and that Congress has the power to treat Puerto Rico fairly immediately without rescinding the Insular Cases.

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