Who Pays for Government Savings? The Cost of Anti-Poverty Program Disparities

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This post is a continuation of my last installment “However, in Puerto Rico…” After reading the last installment, I hope the questions left on many of your minds are “Why did the U.S. create program disparities?” and “What do the disparities mean for Puerto Ricans?” This last post as a #UBLawResponds Student Attorney with the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic will begin to process those two questions.

In 1982, there was widespread dissatisfaction with welfare programs, which President Reagan used to support welfare program reductions to curb the rate of domestic spending. These reductions were aimed at the working poor, with the intent that the poorest individuals would be spared from the budget cuts. The largest program cuts were to Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) (currently known as TANF) and the food stamp program (SNAP). Eligibility within these programs was lowered to exclude most working families, cutting AFDC participants by 250,000 families and the food stamp program by almost one million participants. Another change was the cutbacks on the Work Incentive Program by approximately 600,000 participants, which had been mandatory for AFDC recipients without children under 6. The last notable change was in deferring adjustments for inflation on all welfare programs[i]. These were the cuts that occurred in the states, were there was still a level of Congressional pushback against complete welfare destruction, but territories like Puerto Rico received even bigger cuts.

I won’t reiterate the specific programs that Puerto Rico had cut, but needless to say, it was a direct result of the 1982 campaign to reduce domestic spending and eliminate the working poor from all benefit programs. One continuing issue though are the adjustments for inflation, which the states have periodically, Puerto Rico is still not subject to. This has only aggravated the program caps, as more people become eligible, the program is unable to adjust or expand. So to answer the question “Why did the U.S. create program disparities?” The answer is money and the prioritization of reducing domestic spending over lifting individuals out of poverty and into self-sufficiency.

The second question “What do the disparities mean for Puerto Ricans?” is a bit more difficult to answer. Puerto Rico has a poverty rate of approximately 45% compared to the US rate of 14%. This rate is nearly double that of the most impoverished state in the U.S. While the factors that led to this poverty rate certainly don’t lie directly with the welfare changes, they certainly don’t help the situation, and likely led to a percentage of that number. The first installment addressed many of the welfare programs in Puerto Rico, so let’s start connecting the dots.

TANF is a program that in the states is intended to help those who are in deep poverty to live above half the poverty line. While many will argue the program has other benefits such as the ability to provide emergency support for families, the numbers that the TANF program reports are the children lifted out of deep poverty. In the US 90% of TANF recipients are single-mothers, which makes complete sense given the program intention, but in Puerto Rico 80% of TANF recipients are the disabled. This stark difference is due to the lack of SSI in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico’s replacement block grant serves 36,000, though an estimated 300,000-350,000 would be eligible for SSI if the program existed. What this means is that the low-income disabled individuals who are unable to access the limited block grant turn to TANF instead, and the intended beneficiaries of TANF, the children, are left without these benefits.

Today, SNAP in the states is known as program aimed at supplementing the food needs of low-income workers. SNAP has many long-term benefits such as increased health outcomes, but is touted as a program that promotes self-sufficiency by smoothing the transition from welfare to work. In the states to qualify for SNAP a family of three would need a gross monthly income of $2,184 or less, while in Puerto Rico to qualify for their block grant a family of three would need a net monthly income of $599 or less. The discrepancy between eligibility shows that the Puerto Rican program is trying to address the high number of individuals living in poverty, but with a lowered eligibility income, more families become eligible and the program is unable to address this through any other means than cutting benefits. For a family of three the monthly benefit from SNAP to NAP is close to $200. With a lower income and lower food benefit, the Puerto Rican program may provide nutrition assistance, but it will not be able to promote self-sufficiency or provide a transition from welfare to work.

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) has been the nation’s most successful anti-poverty program, combined with the Child Tax Credit, in 2016 8.9 million people, including 4.7 million children were lifted out of poverty, and the severity of poverty was reduced for 19.3 million people, including 7.2 million children. The EITC is designed to encourage and reward work, as the EITC grows with additional earnings until an individual reaches the maximum value, which would place them safely above the poverty line. EITC has been specifically important to single mothers returning to work. As mentioned in the first installment, the EITC is not available in Puerto Rico, and the Child Tax Credit only applies to families with more than three children. The exclusion of Puerto Rico from these programs has greatly disadvantaged low-income working Puerto Ricans and eliminated their chance of accessing a program known at lifting large numbers of people out of poverty.

All of this is to say that the U.S. cut and reformulated programs in Puerto Rico in order to save some money, but it has created a situation where the 45% of people living in poverty have minimal to no social supports to help lift them up. What makes matters worse is that the disparities are location-based, meaning that if a Puerto Rican were to move to Florida they would be eligible for all of the programs in the states. This creates a difficult question for Puerto Ricans – stay in Puerto Rico and live in poverty, or start a new life on the mainland and be given access to benefit programs people like me are eligible for as mainland U.S. citizens. Just not in Puerto Rico… where everyone is a U.S. citizen.

[i]Benenson, R., Social Welfare Under Reagan, 1984, CQ Press. http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/document.php?id=cqresrre1984030900

Student Attorneys Post-service Contemplations

The University at Buffalo School of Law’s student attorneys in the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic dedicated the end of their December 2018, and all of their January 2018, to preparing for and providing legal and humanitarian service to some of those in need on the Islands of Puerto Rico. Many of the students produced final blog posts, although some of them finished their work in other ways. What follows are those posts that were submitted during March and April after the closing ceremony for our formal course.

To introduce them, here are pictures of the students at work at the University at Puerto Rico Law School, and in a group debriefing and reflection session at their AirBnB after a day-long brigade. #UBLawResponds!

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A Closing Ceremony That Opened Hearts

On the first Sunday in March 2018, the ten Student Attorneys from the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic gathered with their teaching team (Kim Diana Connolly and Karla Raimundi) for a final class and closing ceremony. It was fun to be together again with the #UBLawResponds gang! We lunched, caught up, checked in on final assignments, planned for the April “Puerto Rico Day” events, and had a closing ceremony. I told all of them in that ceremony that we will remain connected for years because of the commitment they all made, demonstrated with their amazing hard work and perseverance.

At the closing ceremony, we ended our shared classroom journey.

Each of the students added a rock to a bowl filled with salt water and a piece of coral from the waters of Puerto Rico. It was meant to represent all the Islands and the people of Puerto Rico. Their rocks were meant to symbolize the heaviness of what the Islands of Puerto Rico and their people faced after Huricán Maria, and into today. After that, each student poured a few drops of water from a very small pitcher of fresh water, symbolizing the offerings (in terms of both work and caring) of each student in the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Clinic. After they poured the water, each student said “Puerto Rico Se Levanta” – and the full team replied “#UBLawResponds Stands with Them.”

There were tears. There was gratitude. There was hope.

It was an honor to work alongside these students, watching them serve and seeing them demonstrate some of the commitment to Access to Justice that will make them great lawyers in the years to come!

Connecting on Common Ground

IMG_20180129_090947_1-01I have connected with so many wonderful people in meaningful ways while I have been in Puerto Rico as a Student Attorney in University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic. Karla Raímundi, our team’s staff attorney for the trip and Puerto Rican native, played an important role in facilitating these interactions and uncovering the common ground Buffalo and Puerto Rico share. These new relationships are not only the foundation for #UBLawResponds in the future, but were also vital to learning about Puerto Rican life.

Karla has always been sensitive to social justice and civil rights issues. So when she completed her Environmental Law LLM at Pace Law School, she knew immediately that she was going to dedicate her professional life to empowering Environmental Justice Communities. During this time, she oversaw four climate justice assessments, an urban forestry initiative, and litigation centered on the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant. Lucky for me, she did a lot of this work in my native Hudson Valley. While I was coming of age and learning to love the natural environment, little did I know that I had such a strong advocate working to protect my home. Being from an Environmental Justice community herself, Karla’s obvious passion and moral imperative for climate justice inspired me to do more and go further with my time on the island.

Being in Puerto Rico and focusing on environmental resilience and sustainability, in some ways, feels like returning the favor. Through our humanitarian aid journeys across the island, I have been introduced to Puerto Rico’s stunning natural beauty. In the midst of hiking through the Cayey Mountains in Karla’s grandparents’ hometown, she I shared a moment where we realized our traded places. The teary-eyed smiles we shared validated our appreciation of each other and strengthened our connection.

Connecting through the significance of our work helped highlight the meaning of the other relationships we were building with our time on the island. When actions like giving somebody a towel or just simply listening to somebody willing to tell their story moves them to tears, it is a powerful emotional experience that will forever bind me to this island. The passion exhibited from the activists, students, professors, stakeholders, and officials has not only inspired me to strengthen my connection with Puerto Rico in the future, but has renewed my vigor to defend my own home.

Buffalo and Puerto Rico are more similar than many would believe. They are both plagued by similar issues; large out-migration, loss of manufacturing jobs, financial issues, environmental degradation, and large economic disparities. Buffalo’s “resurgence” lends itself in part to the ingenuity of grassroots organizers and innovative policymakers. Organizations like “People United for Sustainable Housing” in Buffalo, and “Casa Pueblo” in Puerto Rico, carry out similar missions, albeit in different ways, and could potentially share valuable lessons with each other. By building bridges between our two places, we could seize on our collective knowledge working on similar issues to help the other get stronger.

These shared experiences and new relationships will allow #UBLawResponds to grow into a meaningful long term project and to help facilitate that exchange of ideas. Already, the team is coming up with ways to help support those we met back on the island, including the possibility of a fundraiser to replace a hurricane damaged sports pavilion at an elementary school in Arroyo. However, to do so we need more than just innovative ideas. In order to effectively carry out our mission, we ask that you continue to support this project in any way you can. Together, we can strive for better.