Puerto Rico’s unequal territory treatment in a Federal program to help low-income families is being improved substantially – but will still fall far short of equality.
The program, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, helps low-income families pay home energy bills.
The Commonwealth’s representative to the Federal government, Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (statehood party/D), announced today that his two-year effort to improve Puerto Rico’s funding in the program will result in a quadrupling of the grant as of January 1st.
The program currently helps pay the electricity bills of about one-quarter of a million poor Puerto Ricans, most in families without jobs, in a territory where electricity costs are very high.
Instead of the $3.96 million that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services gave the territory in the fiscal year that ended September 30th, it will grant Puerto Rico $14.68 million during Fiscal Year 2014, departmental officials told Pierluisi.
The 1981 law that established the program discriminates against Puerto Rico as a territory in funding in comparison to its allocations for the States. In addition, however, the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) has given the territory little more than the minimum possible under the law.
The law provides that .1%-.5% of program funding go to Puerto Rico and the four other territories. HHS has given the island areas only .135%. Due to a campaign led by Pierluisi, it will begin to allocate .5%.
This maximum is far short of what Puerto Rico would receive if treated equally however. The State with the number of people below the poverty level closest to the number in Puerto Rico, North Carolina, received $77.7 million in program grants last year.
Although Puerto Rico is an area of the United States and people born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens, Puerto Rico can be so poorly treated in the program because of its political status. Unincorporated territory status permits the Federal government to treat Puerto Rico unequally in programs.
It also denies Puerto Ricans votes in the Federal government other than the vote of a sole resident commissioner in committees of the U.S. House of Representatives to which he or she is assigned.
If it were a State, Puerto Rico would be treated equally in the program with the other States. It would also have two votes in the U.S. Senate, five in the House, and seven in the Electoral College, which choses the president and the vice-president of the United States. This would be more or as much political power in the Federal government as the clout of about half of the existing States of the U.S.