On Thursday, April 21, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in an 8-1 ruling on United States v. Vaello-Madero that the U.S. Congress can continue to exclude Puerto Rican residents from receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. By denying federal assistance to low-income elderly, blind, and disabled people, this decision will have a detrimental impact on Puerto Ricans, who have been U.S. citizens since 1917.
Extending SSI and other federal benefits to Puerto Rico and additional U.S. territories would fill a critical gap in economic security for U.S. citizens who are among the most in need. Of the 3.3 million residents of Puerto Rico, more than 1.4 million live below the poverty line; 57% of the Island’s children live in poverty. The median income in Puerto Rico stands at about $20,000, less than half of the median incomes in Mississippi, Louisiana, and New Mexico – three of the poorest states in the U.S. This decision is pushing the people who need SSI benefits the most, further into poverty. It also comes at a time of acute need in Puerto Rico, as the territory is still reeling from years of economic decline, steep population decline, devastating natural disasters, and a historic bankruptcy.
Since 2019, The Rockefeller Foundation has been working to advance tax benefits parity for Puerto Ricans. We support organizations both within the mainland United States (i.e. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities) and on the Island (i.e. Espacios Abiertos, Centro Para Una Nueva Economía, and the Boys & Girls Club de Puerto Rico’s Instituto del Desarrollo de la Juventud) in their efforts to put working families first by educating policymakers and the public on the impacts of a more inclusive tax system.
Our grantees have demonstrated the significant economic benefits of ensuring that Puerto Rican families receive the same Child Tax Credit (CTC) as families in the rest of the U.S. and have a robust local Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The permanent changes enacted in the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) have been nothing less than life-changing for the estimated 466,000 Puerto Rican residents who will be able to better meet the basic needs of their families, particularly the 55,000 newly eligible households that would be lifted above the poverty threshold. To date, 102,000 additional individuals have filed for the EITC, with $932 million total claimed. The IRS also noted that they received around 270,000 1040-PRs; typically, they receive between 140,000 to 170,000 per year. As evidenced by the numbers, when benefits are made available to those who need them most, they are claimed. These efforts make economic sense. By lifting thousands of families out of poverty, we can boost the economic standing of the entire territory — which is no small feat.
We have seen firsthand what putting people first can do for the economic standing of their community. We have also seen the clear economic and fiscal benefits of closing gaps in the social safety net.
Extending SSI benefits to Puerto Rico would have been a step in the direction of equity and the fairer treatment of people who have been on the receiving end of discriminatory practices since the Island became a U.S. territory, 124 years ago. We must start putting people, their economic stability, and their well-being at the center of our tax and broader economic systems.