White House Touts Puerto Rico Policy Successes

The Biden-Harris administration has released a Fact Sheet outlining their actions in support of Puerto Rico during their first year in office.

Getting disaster recovery funds to Puerto Rico

Congress had approved disaster recovery funding for Puerto Rico following the 2017 Hurricane Maria landfall and the earthquakes the following year, but most of the funds were not actually sent to Puerto Rico. Between inefficiencies and red tape, many municipalities and agencies were unable to access the funds which were promised.

For example, some funds were held up because municipalities could not produce matching funds, or because repairs were begun before paperwork had been approved. FEMA required extra layers of “manual” approval, slowing down the process, and admitted that their reasoning was that Puerto Rico was in a difficult financial position. HUD refused to release funds for years in spite of prompting by Congress, citing unsubstantiated fears of “corruption.”

The Biden administration acknowledge this injustice, “obligating long-awaited disaster recovery funds and removing unfair and unnecessary restrictions that were uniquely applied to Puerto Rico, such as incremental grant obligations, Federal Financial Monitor review, and more.”

In 2021, four years after the hurricane, FEMA finally approved almost $3 billion in funds for 3,542 projects to clean up and repair damage from the hurricane and earthquakes. HUD obligated $16 billion, 90% of the promised funds, to the Island.

So far in 2022, FEMA canceled $371 million in community disaster loans, allowing repairs to continue.

News sources reported on the inequity of the government’s response to Puerto Rico compared with affected states at the time, and the Trump administration was alleged to have expressed an unwillingness to provide funds for Puerto Rico.

The American Rescue Plan

The Biden American Rescue Plan provided $4 billion in Fiscal Recovery Funds to Puerto Rico’s local governments and nearly $3 billion for Puerto Rico’s schools. Residents of Puerto Rico also received the same level of individual assistance and stimulus as residents of States.

The U.S. Constitution allows Congress to treat territories differently from States, though all States must be treated equally. The result is that Puerto Rico often receives less funding than States. The American Rescue Plan addressed some of this inequality. For example, the Child Tax Credit was available only to families with three qualifying children in Puerto Rico (where families are smaller than the national average), while stateside families were eligible with only one child. The American Rescue Plan corrected this injustice.

The ARP also provided additional funding for the Earned Income Tax Credit in Puerto Rico, though it did not match States, and it awarded almost $1 billion in additional nutrition assistance, with $463 million annual increase in the NAP block grant going forward.

Again, this does not match the States, but it addresses the inequity of many years.

White House Working Group on Puerto Rico

Biden’s administration established a White House Working Group on Puerto Rico, headed by Domestic Policy Advisor Susan E. Rice, National Economic Advisor Brian Deese, and Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Julie Rodriguez.

The group focuses on economic development and educational workplace opportunities.

Advancements on Medicaid

The administration has said unequivocally that they support equity in Medicaid for the territories. Puerto Rico receives much less Medicaid funding than the States, and the total amount of Medicaid funding is capped. In States, the funding is elastic in response to the needs of the state, allowing appropriate response to natural disasters and events like the pandemic.

“In September,” according to the Fact Sheet, “the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) determined that Puerto Rico will permanently receive nearly $3 billion per year in additional federal Medicaid funding, indexed to inflation.”

Investments in infrastructure

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) provided significant investment for Puerto Rico’s infrastructure:

  • $900 million to rebuild roads and highways
  • $225 million for bridge replacement and repairs
  • more than $470 million to improve public transportation
  • $13.6 million to support the expansion of an EV charging network on the island
  • a minimum of $100 million to provide broadband coverage across the island
  • at least $78 million in 2022 alone to improve water infrastructure
  • $102 million for airport infrastructure development

In 2022, the administration obligated $163 million to restore the Cano Martin Pena urban tidal channel and surrounding areas of the San Juan Bay National Estuary. This project is expected to improve water quality, a continuing problem on the Island.

Supporting education

Secretary of Education Cardona visited Puerto Rico, and the Department of Education formed the Puerto Rico Education Sustainability (PRES) team. This team has been working with stakeholders on the Island to repair and restore Puerto Rico’s schools, and to support improvement in educational outcomes.

The Department of Education under the Biden Administration has provided $6.7 billion in funding for education in Puerto Rico. The Department is also providing resources and technical assistance.

Data transparency

Recognizing that accurate data is needed for effective strategic planning, the Biden administration is assisting with data collection and analysis for Puerto Rico.

For example, the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) released its first official estimate of GDP for Puerto Rico. GDP, or Gross Domestic Product, is the value of goods and services produced in the territory. The current release gives the estimate for 2019.

GDP information for States is available on the BEA website.

Energy updates

The Biden administration has provided more than $12 billion to work toward a clean, reliable energy grid for Puerto Rico. The new plans emphasize clean, resilient power and chart a course toward meeting Puerto Rico’s renewable energy goals.

The Department of Energy is collaborating with FEMA to prepare a comprehensive study, PR100, which “will be grounded in a commitment to environmental and energy justice and informed by extensive engagement with Puerto Rico stakeholders to reflect the island’s diverse priorities”.

Business support

The Small Business Administration (SBA) has provided $5.2 billion in aid plus more than $89 million in working capital loans. This represents a 68% increase over small business loans to Puerto Rico in 2020.

The SBA also launched two new Women’s Business Centers in Puerto Rico and a Community Navigators Program. Community Navigators focuses on underserved populations of small business owners, including women, minorities, veterans, and rural businesses.

There is also a new grant to support bio-medical jobs through the Economic Development Administration’s Build Back Better Regional Challenge.The administration is also continuing to invest in Puerto Rico through the Department of Labor’s Registered Apprenticeships, YouthBuild, and Job Corps programs.

Vaccinations

The administration is also supporting Puerto Rico’s highly successful COVID-19 vaccination efforts with more than $78 million in federal funds and direct shipments of vaccines.

With 90% of the population having received at least one dose and 78% fully vaccinated, Puerto Rico has a better record on COVID-19 vaccinations than any State.

“From the first day in office and every day since, the Biden-Harris Administration has been fully committed to supporting Puerto Rico’s recovery and renewal,” the Fact Sheet states. “President Biden has long believed that Puerto Rico, and the more than 3 million American citizens who call it home, deserves to be treated with dignity, equality, and respect, with good jobs and a bright future for all of its residents.”

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