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People with Disabilities in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico Could Greatly Benefit From the Application of SSI Benefits to the Island

by Eric Jackson-Rivera, San Juan, Puerto Rico

In 1898, Puerto Rico became a territorial possession of the U.S. in the Caribbean, and since 1952, it has officially been a U.S. Commonwealth and not a federated state. Because of this, the island has always experienced some inconsistencies and ambivalence as to which federal incentives, programs or benefits will apply. The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is one such program: Although Puerto Ricans are American citizens by birth, SSI is not available to them. For Puerto Rican people with disabilities who truly cannot sustain employment that could help them alleviate financial hardships, this fact may be an unnecessary burden and a missed opportunity that their counterparts in the 50 American states may take for granted.

I was born in San Juan in the early 1960s and grew up in Puerto Rico. As far back as I can remember, the island’s locally-elected Resident Commissioners—Puerto Rico’s non-voting delegate to the U.S. Congress—have consistently lobbied American lawmakers to implement the SSI program for qualified U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico.

Many people who work with the indigent and severely disabled population would like to see this program apply to Puerto Rico.  However, critics of federal transfers to Puerto Rico see this as just another way of perpetuating poverty on the island if it doesn’t come with a clear plan of helping those who can, to obtain the needed skills and trainings to extricate themselves from a life of dependence on government subsidies and benefits. This may be an honorable goal, but it is unclear whether the current state of the Puerto Rican economy is equipped to do that.  The relative economic boom that Puerto Rico saw in the 1950s and 60s, as the island moved from an agricultural to an industrial economy, was the result of the innovative economic policies and programs of Operation Bootstrap.  Today, many economists and political analysts warn that the financial hardships faced by most Puerto Ricans are due to the fact that the commonwealth status has run its full course and is no longer capable of economic growth, much less another economic boom.

Such arguments only add to the debate over the advantages or disadvantages of federal transfers to Puerto Rico. However, the common belief that Puerto Rico is too dependent on so-called federal transfers appears to be a generalized misconception both in Puerto Rico and in the U.S. mainland.  A recent article by political analyst Luis Davila Colon states that “a report by the [U.S.] Government Accountability Office (GAO) reveals that Puerto Ricans receive only 15 to 20% of the federal funds that the U.S. citizens on the mainland receive on average.” (2006: The Junk Year by Luis Davila Colon; El Vocero; page 43; 12/13/2006).

If the island were to become the 51st U.S. state, SSI would become available. Advocates for Puerto Rican statehood constantly use the availability of SSI payments as a weapon to gain local support for that political status. Those who truly need this program see this with hope for some respite from financial hardship. And, regardless of their political opinions, many disability advocates seem to agree that the local economy makes it particularly hard for people with disabilities to find employment. A program like SSI would help many people on the island who truly need the extra income and health insurance benefits that comes with it.

But you don’t have to live in Puerto Rico too long to realize that what most of the people here want—whether disabled or not—is one simple thing: well-paid, permanent jobs.

For the disabled who venture into the shaky world of employment in Puerto Rico, the choice is difficult. For anyone who receives any type of Social Security benefits it is commonly said, “Al menos tienes un chequecito seguro” (At least you have a little sure check).  Such income will not stop regardless of Puerto Rico’s volatile, local economic ups and downs. When low-income disabled citizens of the island realize that there is a federal program like SSI, for which they would qualify, it is as if the American treasury is denying them a much-needed monthly income that, though meager, translates for them into a safe and secure lifeline.

Nonetheless, in the larger context of Puerto Rico-U.S. relations, the final sentence in the history of this sometimes convoluted relationship has yet to be written.

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