Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (D-PR) has introduced two bills to advance equality for the territory of Puerto Rico. The legislation, which was originally introduced in a previous session of Congress, seeks to create parity for Puerto Rico under the Social Security Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs.
The average SSI payment to residents of the 50 states is $500 a month; Puerto Rican residents receive an average payment of only $70 under their comparable program. The Pierluisi proposal (H.R. 364) would extend the SSI program to Puerto Rico, making payments to its residents on par with those to other U.S. citizens. In his 2012 platform, the Resident Commissioner provided a detailed explanation behind his motivation for introducing the proposal:
Although SSI applies in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and one territory (the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands), it has never applied in Puerto Rico. Instead, the federal grant program known as Aid to the Aged, Blind, and Disabled (AABD), which preceded the SSI program, continues to apply in Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Of all the disparities that Puerto Rico faces because it is a territory, perhaps none is more damaging or unprincipled than its exclusion from the SSI program, which helps people who cannot help themselves—or who can only do so with great difficulty.
Pierluisi has also launched a plan (H.R. 365) to expand Puerto Rico’s eligibility for funds under the TANF program. Under current TANF law, U.S. territories are not eligible for supplemental grants, contingency funds, and childcare funds – which states can receive. Federal law also places an annual cap on the amount of funding that a territory can receive through TANF. Pierluisi’s legislation would remove the funding cap and allow territories to qualify for the TANF grants and funds that they currently do not receive.
Because Puerto Rico is not a state, it is more challenging for Pierluisi to achieve the same results for his constituents that come to his congressional colleagues automatically by virtue of being defined as a “state” in federal legislation. He has expressed to Congress that the voters of Puerto Rico do not want to continue with their current status as a U.S. territory, citing the results of the November plebiscite. As long as Puerto Rico remains a territory, however, Pierluisi will have to continue to introduce – and reintroduce – legislation in the hope of bringing the island territory in parity with the rest of the United States.