Reflections on Serving a Strong People Facing Intricate Fragility, One Year After Hurricane Maria

It’s been a year. Recovering from a disaster like Hurricane Maria was never expected to be complete by now. A Category 4 hurricane, Maria engulfed the Islands of Puerto Rico on the 20th of September 2017, leaving thousands of people dead, many more without IMG_7790the necessities of life, transforming certain ecosystems forever, traumatizing survivors, and changing the Islands of Puerto Rico forevermore. Hurricane Maria lead to heartache and hope, for people on the Islands and those of us watching in solidarity from afar. And on this anniversary, those of us who are very far away but left a part of our hearts there, still are pondering how to assist from here in the years ahead.

Since Maria, in my capacity as a law professor and director of the University at Buffalo School of Law Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic, I have been to Puerto Rico five times. I traveled there in December, again for two weeks over January-February, then returned three times in the summer (in June, July, and August). As a lawyer offering pro bono policy and legal service, my presence was not needed immediately after the storm. I got there after some of the worst visible damage was repaired, and the planning for how to help people, communities, and the territory recover began in earnest. As I look back, I arrived as the intricate fragility of Puerto Rico’s new reality was setting in.

IMG_8178Through those trips, I have seen progress in recovery, and gotten to know people of amazing resilience. I have also come to understand the nature of the legal limitations facing the territory. I have puzzled about the legacy of challenging energy and water delivery services and how to encourage real energy, climate justice, and other sustainability. I have witnessed the tough economics of many of those whose families have called the Islands home for generations (as compared to those who visit to play or profit). I have seen the gorgeous ecosystem which has regrown in some ways, but been immutably changed in others. And I have looked into the eyes and heard the stories of some of those who are working for access to true justice.

My two favorite trips were when I had the honor of travelling alongside over a dozen amazing #UBLawResponds-PR student attorneys. With the backing of generous donors and the many extra hours of labor by dedicated staff, these young people worked extremely hard to prepare and serve in the wake of the disaster. The University atIMG_9516 Buffalo School of Law Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinicwas the best of service-learning, offering raw insight into both human needs and human strength. The Clinic showed these soon-to-be attorneys up close what people with legal and policy training can do…and what they can’t do. It left most of them wanting to do more, not only in Puerto Rico, but also for other vulnerable populations.

Yet here we are, a year after Maria struck. In the reports that look back today, we can read and listen to incredibly intense stories. Like the one from NPR exploring how an “unbearable debt crisis, the antiquated power grid and gross political ambition and unreliability were accomplices to the natural disaster.”Or story exploring some personal aftermath published by the New York Times entitled “Sunrise Melodies and Tearful Reflections: Puerto Rico a Year After Maria,” relating the experiences of people “still wrangling with the federal government over money to rebuild their home” and noting that “generosity and the solidarity among neighbors was the only positive remnant of the storm.” Or one ABC affiliate’s video, reporting on a town where #UBLawResponds-PR Student Attorneys assisted with pro bono legal services, in a piece entitled “AccuWeather in Puerto Rico: Hundreds of homes in Loiza still damaged 1 year after Hurricane Maria.”Or a Reuters piece, that relays a heartbreaking truth: “shuttered businesses, blue tarp roofs and extensively damaged homes can still be seen throughout Puerto Rico a year after Hurricane Maria ripped through the island with 150 mile-per-hour winds, and access to electricity and fresh water remain spotty.” Or the Associate Press story “For Puerto Rico’s poor, hurricane was heavy blow” that tells the story of a man who received seriously insufficient federal aid and has emptied his pension since the storm, and “sees no immediate prospect of moving out of the only habitable space in his home, an enclosed balcony still missing windows from Maria.” Such vivid coverage of the actual storm itself one year ago was only the beginning. Stories of the tragic aftermath and the intricate fragility will continue for years to come.

IMG_9295#UBLawResponds-PR knows firsthand what Puerto Rico is facing, and is continuing to do work with and for Puerto Rico community partners. At this point, our work is primarily in the areas of resilience and energy/climate justice, insurance, and work on behalf of veterans who live there. We are proud of the service we have already done, and remain committed to being of continuing service from Buffalo. We know that, ¡Puerto Rico se levanta! (loosely translated to Puerto Rico stands up (or rises)) … and #UBLawResponds-PR will continue to stand with them.



The End of the Beginning: #UBLawResponds Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic has just commenced our journey


For those of you who have followed this blog, you know that in January 2018, #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys from the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic had an amazing service-learning adventure. After more than five weeks of classwork and preparation starting mid-December 2017 in Buffalo, these students, myself, and other UB staff were ready to travel to Puerto Rico. There we met experts, stood with law students and proficient faculty from University of Puerto Rico’s Law School, worked with other UPR experts, assisted community partners on legal brigades, and gathered on-the-ground data, stories, and experience to help draft papers and reports that we hope will inform ways forward after the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

While in Puerto Rico, #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys helped local lawyers file over 80 FEMA appeals and provide other legal assistance. #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys raised money and purchased supplies and solar lamps for more than 800 families, delivered on multiple humanitarian brigades to strong people in distant places who have been without water, power, and other basic supplies for more than four months. #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys met with local experts to plan long-term community-based research projects. You may have read about some of these adventures through Student Attorney blog posts.

What those blog posts may not have made clear, however, is the amazing fact that #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys worked from early morning to late at night (often past midnight) every day. They were fierce in their commitment to (but gentle in their delivery of) both access to justice and basic supplies. The dedication of UB’s students made my heart sing (hace latir mi corazón).

I have met with each of these amazing Student Attorneys since our return. To a person, they remain committed to ensuring that the work of this clinic will continue. You will have a chance to read their final papers and reports for this course on this website next month. But that will not be the conclusion of the overall work.


When this formal course wraps up later this month, it will only be the end of this first chapter. In other words … it will be the end of the beginning.

The mission that the students drafted during our January class has not changed:

Because recovery goes beyond disaster relief, #UBLawResponds provides practical legal research and thoughtful pro bono service, through an ongoing collaborative effort to empower a resilient Puerto Rico.


El camino a la restauración va más allá de responder a los efectos de un desastre natural. La misión de la clínica legal de la Universidad del Estado de Nueva York es contribuir al proceso de empoderamiento de Puerto Rico proveyendo servicios de investigación legal gratuitos con aplicaciones prácticas en colaboración con la comunidad puertorriqueña y sus aliados. 

Stay tuned. #PRSeLevanta, #UBLawResponds stands with them.

When Some is Better Than None: FEMA Accountability after Huracán María


What is accountability, really? We’ve all tossed the word around and heard it used. Usually one hears “accountability” and thinks of “responsibility.” According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, accountability is defined as follows: “the quality or state of being accountable; especially : an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.”[1]

Now what does accountability have to do with Puerto Rico and Hurricane María? This concept of accountability is central to the failures we have seen in Puerto Rico since it was hit by María. The people of Puerto Rico are our brothers and sisters—they are our fellow United States citizens. As a student in the University at Buffalo School of La Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic [ hotlink], I have been looking closely at these issues since December. These people were in need of—and many are still in need of—basic life necessities, like water, shelter, electricity, and food.

Now, here is where the accountability comes in: when a natural disaster affects our country, we have government agencies in place to step up and help our citizens. The main agency responsible for coordinating relief efforts is the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA is charged with establishing contracts with vendors to provide needed services: food, water, tarps, electricity. Hurricane María struck the island of Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, resulting in a humanitarian crisis. Now that we are in February 2018, it’s easier to step back and look at the efficacy of our government’s response in helping our fellow citizens. FEMA was responsible for—and should be held accountable for accountable—in securing contracts to help these people.

So, how did FEMA’s response chock up? Unfortunately, not very well, when one looks beyond “official” statistics. The three essential contracts needed immediately in Puerto Rico were all secured with small companies with no proven track record of providing such services—and then the contracts were cancelled before any progress was made. The $30 million contract to provide tarps? Cancelled. The $300 million contract to reconstruct the destroyed electrical infrastructure on the island? Cancelled. The $156 million contract to provide 30 million meals? Cancelled. 2018 is already here and no contracts have been established to replace these services.

But who is accountable for these cancellations—FEMA or the contractors that did not follow through? The accountability lays with FEMA. The agency has drawn large amounts of criticism for hiring new, start-up companies with either proven track records of not being able to fulfill large contracts or no track records at all. Regarding the meals contract, Democrat Elijah Cummings, D-Md., summed up the problem pretty well: “one of the primary reasons FEMA failed to deliver these meals is because it inexplicably awarded a contract worth approximately $156 million to deliver 30 million emergency meals to a tiny, one-person company with a history of struggling with much smaller contracts.”[2] With multiple bids, why would FEMA rely on such unestablished businesses?

And it’s not necessarily fair to fully blame the businesses who took on these contracts for not fulfilling their part of the deal. First of all, FEMA should have picked more appropriate candidates to begin with. Secondly, one has to ask, how committed was FEMA to actually making sure these vital supplies made it to Puerto Rico? According to the owner of Tribute, LLC., the company hired to provide 30 million meals, FEMA cancelled her meals contract over a dispute about providing self-heating meals. Tiffany Brown, the owner of the company claims that she informed FEMA from the beginning that the meals would not be self-heating and the heating packets would be sent along with the meals. Brown claims that she “notified FEMA in [an] Oct. 19 email that 36,000 meals were en route – with the meals packaged separately from the heating component – a FEMA official told her that was not acceptable and told her not to deliver the meals.”[3]

This statement begs the question: wouldn’t 36,000 meals with separate heating packets be better than no meals at all? Apparently FEMA didn’t think so.

The work in Puerto Rico must continue. #UBLawResponds will be joining other legal experts to continue to seek FEMA accountability. You can support our ongoing work here.



Sometimes I Get Angry: Contemplating the Role of Anger in Public Interest Work


Sometimes, when working in a public interest organization, it can be difficult for me to remain calm. Sometimes I become angry and frustrated. I become angry and frustrated when I see people hurt needlessly. I become angry and frustrated when I see politicians and public figures disregard suffering. When I work with refugees and asylum seekers, I become angry and frustrated when I hear politicians and public figures speak poorly about people who have made the terrible decision to leave their homes.

As a Student Attorney in the University at Buffalo Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic, I have often felt angry and frustrated. The President of the United States has been very clear in his lack of sympathy for Puerto Rico. Many news media outlets are no longer regularly reporting about Hurricane Maria and its impact on Puerto Rico. Government organizations, such as FEMA, have had lackluster responses to the hurricane: sometimes this is because the organization does not have the resources to help the island, but often it appears that a lot of organizations just don’t care that much. Learning how the fact that Puerto Rico is a territory and not a state, making many mainland programs unavailable on the island, just adds to the anger and frustration I feel.

Being on the island with the #UBLawResponds team in January 2018, I find that anger isn’t enough of a reason to do the pro bono legal work I do. Anger and frustration is not enough to help anyone. It doesn’t help the people you are trying to advocate for. It doesn’t dismantle harmful policies and laws. It doesn’t change national discourse. It doesn’t change people’s minds. Anger, especially hot-blooded anger that spills over onto other people, usually does not serve a productive purpose.

One possible productive result of anger and frustration is that it sometimes serves as a fuel for yourself. Working in public interest is mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting, and sometimes I’ve found that anger can serve as a short-term motivator when I feel like giving up to go work in corporate America. Anger can help me get that extra little bit of emotion to power through when I feel oppressed by the weight of all the work there is to do. However, if the only emotion powering you through public interest work is anger, then you will burn out faster than you would otherwise. So, I put aside my anger and focus again on the work at hand for #UBLawResponds and others continuing to serve those devastated by Hurricane Maria. You can support our continuing work here.


A Smile and a Handshake is More Than Enough – My First Client


The path to understanding the true value of the profession I have chosen perhaps began the day I received my LSAT score. At the time, I thought, how do I best challenge myself now that I have some measure of what I can do and where I can go to pursue a legal career. The challenge itself was what I valued the most at the time. I yearned for the academic rigors, challenging my mind and developing new understandings while I learned the profession. Almost two years have passed and my outlook on the legal profession, and more importantly, on life itself, has changed significantly.

For some, the goal remains to get the best job, which for most might mean the highest salary or a position at the biggest firm in the city. For others, it might mean breaking the barriers and leaving their hometown, heading to New York City maybe, or Washington. Now, I am not trying to judge or demean what is valuable to others. But I believe I now value other things, which within the context of life and humanity, mean to me more than any position, any salary, and any way other way of life. Let me tell you the story of how a smile and a handshake became the greatest measure of success in my legal career so far.

IMG_1291On January 25th, some of my colleagues and I went to Villa Cañona in Loiza, Puerto Rico. We were taking part in a legal brigade, started by one of our local partners, to provide legal service to a community devastated by Hurricane Maria. The goal for us student attorneys was to provide help in any way we could, whether that was interviewing clients, filing an appeal to FEMA, or even being on hold on the phone with FEMA for an hour trying to get a status update for a client. At first, I truly felt helpless in many ways. I talked to some locals and listened to their unfortunate stories. But there was nothing I could do, I was powerless beyond my willingness to lend an ear. That was until the end of our shift, when this gentleman walked in. I’ll call him Mr. Rivera.

Mr. Rivera walked in, looking kind of lost and somewhat helpless. He stood by the entrance looking around until his eyes met mine. I stood up and went over to greet him and ask him how we could help him; as I had done during the whole day. He told me he needed to file a claim with FEMA. Of course, up to that point, we had been filing appeals with FEMA; homeowners that had filed their initial claim and had been denied. But this gentleman had not yet been able to sit in front of a computer, understand the steps he had to take, and file his claim. As had been the process so far, I was ready to refer Mr. Rivera to one of the attorneys. However, once I told them what the man needed, the attorneys felt this was something I could do. Simple, right? Just file a claim.

I sat next to Mr. Rivera, opened my laptop, connected to a wireless hotspot, and proceeded to file his claim. As I asked him questions related to his situation, I had the opportunity to stare him in the eyes. I could almost feel what he felt. We got through it and there was, at that moment, no feeling out of the ordinary. That was until he stood up in front of me, leaned forward, grabbed my hand with both of his, and said “Thank you, young man,” as he let out a pleasant smile. At that moment, some of my colleagues and my professor saw me, and I believe they understood what I had just experienced and what it meant for me. However, for me, someone who is truly not used to exploring his feelings, I have only now, as I write this, just begun to understand what that moment meant for me and for the rest of my career.

The biggest paycheck I will ever receive, the greatest title I will ever have, truly means nothing. Smaller moments of gratitude and humility seem to have a greater impact on my life than anything else. I felt a strong sense of purpose and determination at that moment. Maybe Mr. Rivera will get denied, and someone else will file his appeal. But I was his aid at that moment, someone who was willing to help and be at his side. Since this clinical experience began, I have slowly been learning the true meaning of service; the spiritual concept deeply rooted in our humanity, not just the meaning of the word. However, through that half hour I spent with Mr. Rivera, I saw the outcome of serving; what it means to those I serve. It is not about a selfish sense of gratification, but about putting forth the best version of ourselves, causing a perdurable moment of relief to those who desperately need it. He might never hear about it, but Mr. Rivera may have given me one of the biggest, most humbling, and most important lessons of a career that has yet begun. Thanks to you, Mr. Rivera, a smile and handshake is more than enough.


Paying Rent Under a Blue Roof: Landlord Tenant Law in Puerto Rico after Maria


Imagine experiencing a hurricane: you are terrified for your own safety, that of your loved ones, your property. You’re concerned about basic survival: life becomes a lot harder when you have no electricity and no cell phone signal. The place you are employed may be temporarily or permanently closed—you’ve also lost your income. But, for many tenants in Puerto Rico, their concerns don’t end there.

Add to all your other concerns the fact that the property that you pay to live in has been seriously damaged by the hurricane. You’re living under a “blue roof” (a tarp); chances are your landlord is in a tough financial situation after the hurricane as well and cannot afford to make such a huge repair or is waiting to get help from his insurance or possibly FEMA. Now you’re in a tough position: living under a blue roof, you’re still expected to pay your rent.

Some readers may simply think: if your landlord’s not willing to get the job done, then just move. But, regardless of whether you rent a home or own a home, it’s important to never forget that the place you live is still your home.

It’s hard to define the idea of home. Habitat for Humanity did it’s best to try to define “home.” It asked the people that it helps provide with houses what they consider to be home and found that “the common thread binding each family was that each home became these families’ base for everything: faith, hope, family, school, fellowship, even future struggles and conquests.”

Home is your safe place, your place of refuge. What an awful thing to lose, but it’s a common loss as a result of natural disasters. So, in the case that you cannot afford to move, do not have the energy to move, or simply don’t want to move, it’s important to know your rights.

As a #UBLawResponds student in the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic, I have done research to help tenants know their rights. Here’s a quick breakdown of some of the most important things to know about your rights as a tenant in Puerto Rico.

If repairs are needed, you have to notify your landlord. 31 L.P.R.A. § 4056         

Your landlord is responsible to make such repairs within a reasonable amount of time and to maintain the property in the same condition as you rented it. If such repairs take more than 40 days, your rent should be reduced. 31 L.P.R.A. § 4051, 31 L.P.R.A. § 4055.

Your landlord cannot evict you without formal court proceedings. The landlord has to fill out all of the necessary paperwork and take you to court. 32 L.P.R.A.

Unfortunately, you cannot force a landlord to do anything. But, it is always better to know your basic tenant rights in this situation; it’s one less thing to worry about trying to figure out. And while it is hard to leave a place you consider home, don’t ever forget how strong you are—you survived a hurricane. You have the strength to make a new place your home.

Get Off My Lawn! Difficulties in Determining Land and Home Ownership

IMG_1018 (1)

Puerto Rico is a beautiful and unique place. The only tropical rainforest in the United States is El Yunque in Puerto Rico, the world’s most sensitive single-dish radio telescope capable of radar astronomy is in Puerto Rico, and at least 50 species of animals found only in Puerto Rico are just a couple ways in which the island is one-of-a-kind. More relevantly, homelessness, unauthorized home construction, undocumented transfers of ownership, and unique laws in Puerto Rico present incredibly unique legal issues and dilemmas.

Families in Puerto Rico are very close-knit and it is not unusual for adult children to build homes on their parents’ property in order to remain close, and due to a lack of resources to buy property or a house of their own. The family may build a separate building for the grown children to move into with their spouses, or they may build additional rooms onto the parents’ house. Resulting legal issues abound: “landowners” often lack a proper title; even if landowners do have a title, proper building permits often have not been obtained; and often a proper deed does not exist to prove ownership of the structures. Without these documents, pursuing legal avenues after a damaging event or disaster can be extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Puerto Rico’s rural housing realities have made recovery from Hurricane Maria’s even more difficult. Imagine your family has lived in the same valley for generations—each generation building another small house just a few yards away from their parents’ house. The houses have now spread up the side of the mountain and across the valley. Now imagine a Category 4 hurricane hits the island, dumping 30 inches of rain on you and your family in 18 hours. The valley floods and landslides come down parts of the mountains, winds exceeding 200 mph tear off roofs and rip trees from the ground, turning them into missiles. The flooding changes the course of the nearby river and houses fall over its banks. Every house is damaged in some way. What are you going to do?

This is just a fraction of what the citizens in Puerto Rico had to deal with after hurricane Maria. They had to cope with their lives being completely uprooted and altered. Many, many people lost both their homes and their jobs, leaving them unable to rebuild or pay for housing. The vast majority of citizens have been denied assistance by FEMA: one especially impoverished town has had a 100% denial rate.

FEMA denials have largely been supported by reasons such as lack of proof of ownership, insufficient damage, or continued inhabitance. These reasons for denial carry no weight. FEMA requirements for proof of ownership are very low and can be met by a sworn affidavit. Claims of insufficient damage are false and cannot be proven as many of the adjusters never set foot in or around the houses they’ve issued denials for. And denials due to continued inhabitance are cruel and improper. These people aren’t living in these broken and dangerous houses because they want to, or because the damage isn’t severe enough to warrant moving; they are living in these houses because they have no other choice.

These citizens have the option to appeal FEMA’s denials, an option that will hopefully allow them to obtain the assistance they need and deserve. You can help this happen by donating to our local community partner organization who is working on the ground on the Island, Ayuda Legal Huracán María, and by supporting continuing efforts by the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic of the University at Buffalo School of Law, #UBLawResponds.

Ventanas Rotas: Importing Broken Policies


As Puerto Rico enters its 4th month without fully reinstated power and water, crime rates have begun to soar, but the response to this reality from the government is counterintuitive at best. According to The New York Times, January 16, 2018 article, the local authorities have embraced Rudy Giuliani’s defunct “Broken Windows” policy to combat the recent influx of general crime, as well as the drastic swell in homicides. The policy purports to create a general environment of law and order by cracking down on small public crimes. Not only have critics recognized this policy as ineffective, racist, and harmful since its employ in the 80’s, there are clear signs it won’t work on the Island of Puerto Rico.

First, the police throughout Puerto Rico are on strike! How do authorities plan to increase the number of citations and arrests when 2,000 of the island’s 13,600 officers are calling out sick each day in protest? Officers are striking because they have yet to be paid for the many additional hours they put in during recovery from Irma and now María. But the failure to pay stems from the larger issue of the island’s $74 billion debt crisis – something they arguably cannot escape while trapped by PROMESA – the U.S. Federal law which created an oversight board tasked with restructuring Puerto Rico’s debt – and a general lack of independence.

Second, Puerto Rico’s economic crisis is well documented; however, the hurricane has exacerbated the issue by claiming many citizens’ jobs. Unemployment claims are mounting as employers close or downsize, and traveling to work has become more difficult for many people. People without jobs still need food for their families, gas for their generators, and funds for other basic needs, such as housing and medical attention. There has been a simultaneous uptick in robberies, theft, and car break-ins. However, I see many of these crimes as a symptom of the failing federal benefits programs and Federal aid through FEMA to help victims, not an indication of the failing morality of the Puerto Rican People.

Puerto Rico has struggled with high crime rates for most of its developed years, and I find the general response has been to blame the people and culture, when in reality, it is attributable to the stifling effects of systematic oppression. So, to see the local authorities on the island work in conjunction with federal forces to tackle this issue by attacking poorer communities – as the Broken Windows Policy inescapably does – is truly frustrating. The tactic operates within the same broken colonial mindset, by blaming the problem on the underrepresented and powerless in order to distract from the true origin of the issue – the parasitic colonizer.

When citizens have good options for employment, combined with opportunities to enrich their own communities, crime becomes a less attractive avenue for obtaining basic needs. Puerto Ricans do not need the U.S.’s recycled discriminatory tactics of oppression. What they do need should be up to them. I believe it is time to acknowledge the relationship between crime and a lack of autonomy; and, as I visit the island, I am looking forward to learning more about the Boricua point of view on the issue from the people themselves.

I volunteered to come to Puerto Rico with the #UBLawResponds Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic of the University at Buffalo School of Law because I wanted to show my solidarity with the people, and to encourage a healthier relationship with the Island in my generation. I believe that with good policy and grassroots movements Puerto Rico can thrive through its resilience.


However, in Puerto Rico…A Discussion on Anti-Poverty Program Disparities

IMG_0740 (1)

When a natural disaster strikes, U.S. citizens often rely upon FEMA to respond. But when FEMA benefits end, people are still left to pick up the pieces of their former lives. Those who were once secure financially now struggle, and those who were impoverished experience complete and total devastation. Anti-poverty programs play an important role in disaster recovery. Though imagine what would happen if the programs were unable to provide for all the people in need, or what if they did not exist at all… Puerto Ricans don’t have to imagine this scenario, because they are already living it.

Before Hurricane Maria hit, Puerto Rico was already experiencing high levels of poverty, with 43.5% of people living in poverty[1], compared to the national average of 12.7%[2]. While many factors contribute to the number, Puerto Rico’s anti-poverty programs do very little to help reduce it. Puerto Ricans are United States citizens, whether they live in the 50 states or in Puerto Rico[3], and as such, are entitled to receive all of the benefits and privileges granted to citizens. Yet, the law treats citizens living in Puerto Rico vastly different from how they would be treated on the mainland.

For example, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) plays an important role in providing funds to purchase food, and in a disaster, can also help to replace food that was lost. SNAP is an entitlement program for most, meaning anyone qualified can receive benefits, which allows the program to respond to economic need[4]. However, in Puerto Rico, SNAP does not exist. It is replaced by a block grant program, which means that with limited funds, participation and payments are restricted, and the program has no ability to adapt to economic changes[5]. Puerto Rico also can not access disaster funds related to nutrition assistance without a special designation[6].

Unlike SNAP, programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Child Nutrition Programs that exist on the mainland are present in Puerto Rico. However, in Puerto Rico TANF mainly provides support for individuals with disabilities, who make up 80% of participants[7]. This is a stark contrast to the mainland, where 90% of TANF supports single mothers living in poverty[8]. While the participation in Puerto Rico may be influenced in part by the stigma of welfare, the absence of Supplemental Security Income in Puerto Rico likely plays the larger role.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is the federal program that provides direct assistance to low-income elderly and disabled individuals. However, in Puerto Rico, like SNAP this program does not exist, and has been replaced by a limited grant[9].  Before the hurricane, this limited program assisted approximately 36,000 people, who received a monthly benefit of around $75[10]. In contrast, if Puerto Ricans could access SSI, an estimated 300,000-350,000 people would be eligible for an average monthly benefit of $540[11].

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is known as the being the most effective anti-poverty program to date, and is an effective tool for stimulating the economy by increasing the workforce and raising the working poor out of poverty. However, in Puerto Rico, like SNAP and SSI, the EITC does not exist. The EITC creates incentives for people to enter the workforce, which is critical for Puerto Rico, as less than half of Puerto Rico’s people are in the workforce, with many participating in the informal economy[12]. It is also important to note that while the Child Tax Credit does exist in Puerto Rico, it only applies to families with more than three children[13].

This comparison of programs is intended to shed light on the disparities between the anti-poverty programs in the states and Puerto Rico, and provide insight into the difficulties facing Puerto Ricans before the hurricane hit. This issue will not go away anytime soon, and while my future posts will focus on implications and solutions, low-income and impoverished Puerto Ricans need our help now. I hope that you will consider donating to #UBLawResponds so that we can provide essential goods to the Puerto Ricans we serve through our work on the island.

My next related blog will delve into the implications of the limited nature of Puerto Rico’s programs, like how a simple change of address can bring a low-income family out of extreme poverty. But tonight I must sleep, because tomorrow we are heading out to finally begin the fieldwork component of our course!

[1] United States Census Bureau, Quick Facts: Puerto Rico,

[2] United States Census Bureau, Income and Poverty in the United States: 2016, September 12, 2017,

[3] U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, INA: Act 302 – Persons Born In Puerto Rico,

[4] Elizabeth Wolkomir, “How Is Food Assistance Different in Puerto Rico Than in the Rest of the United States?,” November 2017,

[5] Id.

[6] 42 U.S.C.A. § 5179.

[7] The University of Texas at Austin: Child and Family Research Institute, Supporting Children and Families: TANF and Head Start in Puerto Rico,

[8] Id.

[9] U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means, “Appendix B: Social Welfare Programs in the Territories,”

[10] Robin Rudowitz, “Navigating Recovery: Health Care Financing and Delivery Systems in Puerto Rico and US Virgin Islands,” December 2017,

[11] Id.

[12] Center for Puerto Rican Studies, “Welfare Reform and the EITC: Economic Development Recommendations by the Oversight Board,”

[13] Richard V. Reeves and Katherine Guyot, “Keeping our PROMESA: What the U.S. can do about Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis,”