The president of the Puerto Rico College of Social Work Professionals this week charged that Puerto Rico’s status as a territory was responsible for its social and economic problems.
Referring to the status, sometimes misleadingly called “commonwealth” after a word in the formal name of the insular government, Larry Emil Alicea asked, “If the current colonial model is so efficient, why are our social and economic indicators so poor.”
The social workers leader went on to note “[t]he colonial period has not produced [adequate] development.”
“Solving the colonial problem is the door to beginning to answer our national problems,” Alicea, an apparent Puerto Rico nationalist, declared.
The underlying problem, he explained, is the Commonwealth’s lack of voting representation in the government that makes its national laws: the Federal government. “A nation in which we have no political participation rules and dictates policy to address our problems,” he said.
The Secretary of the Family in the insular government’s “commonwealth” party administration, Idalia Colon Rondon, essentially admitted afterwards that the Commonwealth’s treatment in Federal programs is a cause of the territory not adequately addressing social needs in Puerto Rico.
The treatment is far worse than that of the States of the U.S. in major programs for low-income individuals, including health care programs.
March estimates by the U.S. Congress’ Government Accountability Office discussed the billions of dollars Puerto Rico and hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans are losing annually due to the Commonwealth’s status as a territory and not a State. The estimates were for Federal Fiscal Years 2010 and ’11.
– Up to $1.8 billion in aid to low-income elderly and disabled Puerto Ricans, including up to 320,000 more than receive any aid now.
– Up to $1.5 billion more in health care for elderly and disabled Puerto Ricans.
– Up to $1.415 billion more in health care for low-income Puerto Ricans, including up to 1.1 million more than received the care in Federal Fiscal Year 2011.
– Up to $700 million in assistance to low-income Puerto Ricans for buying food, providing assistance to up to 496,000 more.
– $525 million in assistance for hundreds of thousands of low and low-middle income workers.
– $137 million in additional assistance for low and low-middle income workers with children.
– $56 million in assistance with college costs — not including other increases in tuition grants and loans.
The up to $1.415 billion more estimate for health care for low-income Puerto Ricans did not include an additional $1.5 billion more for long-term care that Puerto Rico does not provide now.
Estimates were not made in several programs that benefit low-income individuals and families.
A major one was temporary assistance for low-income families with no working parent. States with circumstances similar to Puerto Rico’s receive several hundred million dollars a year under the program.
Another major one was funding for educating low-income elementary and secondary school students. Key factors in determining the amount of grants would have increased substantially in Puerto Rico’s favor.
Social workers organization President Alicea’s observation about Puerto Rico’s territory status being a basis of its social and economic problems was in line with the analysis of the then chairman of the U.S. Senate committee with jurisdiction over the Commonwealth’s status and other territories issues opening a hearing 14 months ago.
Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) pointed out that “Puerto Rico faces huge economic and social challenges … The lack of resolution of Puerto Rico’s status, not only distracts from addressing these and other issues, it contributes to them.”
Wyden was echoing a conclusion of President Obama’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status in 2011: “[I]dentifying the most effective means of assisting the Puerto Rican economy depends on resolving the ultimate question of status.”
Fifty-four percent of Puerto Ricans opposed continuation of territory status and 61.2% chose U.S. statehood as the alternative in a plebiscite under local law held along with the 2012 elections.
They also, though, at the same time very narrowly elected a governor and majorities in each house of the insular legislature that supported the losing territory status option, complained of the lack of an option for an unprecedented “commonwealth status,” and have refused to honor the results of the plebiscite.
Because of the intransigence on the issue of the new territorial officials, the President proposed and Congress in January agreed to provide for another plebiscite but one that would be conducted on U.S. Justice Department-agreed to options so that the “commonwealth” party would have less credibility in disputing the vote.
Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla has said that the plebiscite should be conducted but his “commonwealth” party has so far been unable to agree on what a “commonwealth status” for the plebiscite would be.
Puerto Rico’s representative to the Federal government who heads its statehood party, Pedro Pierluisi, has led 131 other members of the U.S. House of Representatives in sponsoring a bill that would enable the Commonwealth to become a State if Puerto Ricans vote for the status again. Three U.S. senators have introduced companion legislation.
Leaders of the statehood party have proposed other measures to seek to have the self-determination decision of Puerto Ricans implemented, including electing ‘shadow’ U.S. senators and House of Representatives members to urge a grant of statehood to the territory, following a statehood admission process that worked for several territories that became States.