Left behind: Poverty’s toll on the children of Puerto Rico

BlogHealthMar 28 2016

While news reports of Puerto Rico’s economic crisis describe the role of “bonds”, “taxes,” and strategies for “reinvigoration,” they fail to mention the tragic impact this situation is having on the children and families of Puerto Rico. This small island has a much higher poverty rate than any of the 50 U.S. states. In 2014, the U.S. Census estimated that 58 percent of Puerto Rico’s children live below the federal poverty level—much higher than the overall rate of 22 percent of children living below the poverty line throughout the United States. Puerto Rico’s poverty rate is startlingly higher than that of any U.S. state. New Mexico had the highest rate among the states, with 29.5 percent of its children living below the federal poverty level.

As someone who was born and raised in Puerto Rico and is acutely aware of the poverty on the island, I understand that Puerto Rico’s economic crisis is also a child poverty crisis. Ultimately, how Puerto Rico addresses the dire financial situation will impact the lives and future of the children on the island. It will also have implications for the larger United States, as Puerto Rican children represent the second largest group of U.S. Latinos.

Impact of the Recession on Puerto Rico

The island faces a multitude of challenges.  Public debt has increased every year since 2000. The 2007 recession only made matters worse for the island’s economy. To pay back the debt, Puerto Rico has delayed tax refunds and payments to suppliers, cut back on health care and public transportation services, eliminated nearly 25,000 public-sector jobs- about one-eighth of the government workforce- closed 100 out of its 1,387 schools, increased the sales tax by more than 50 percent, and required community credit unions to give loans to the government in exchange for IOUs. Despite these steps, the three major ratings agencies downgraded Puerto Rico’s debt to junk status in 2014, citing its long history of economic weakness. Today, the unemployment rate is 11.9 percent – more than double the national average in the U.S.

Effects of the economic crisis can be seen in the efforts to fight the Zika virus – thousands of workers needed to fight this epidemic have been laid off. Intensive efforts to stop the virus have started on the island.

Trapped in an economic downward spiral, the tax base has eroded amid massive out-migration to the U.S. mainland. U.S. Census Bureau data show that 144,000 more people migrated to the mainland than those who moved to Puerto Rico from the mainland between mid-2010 to 2013. All in all, about 28 percent of all people born on Puerto Rico now live on the mainland.  For the first time in its history as a U.S. territory, the island is experiencing a sustained population decline. In 2010, there were about 3.7 million people living in Puerto Rico, down from 3.8 million in 2000. The Census Bureau projects that if the decline in population continues, by 2050 there will be only about 3 million people living in Puerto Rico—representing a population decrease of 800,000 in the first half of the 21st Century.

Effect on children and families

The disadvantages associated with child poverty can affect children throughout the lifespan. It is well documented that children who experience poverty are at a higher risk for many negative outcomes: poor health, lower school performance, delinquent behavior, unemployment, and dependence on public assistance. Prolonged economic hardship can act as a form of chronic stress, jeopardizing children’s brain development and contributing to their susceptibility to disease.

[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=”-via @ChildTrends”]Children in Puerto Rico are not faring well compared with other U.S. Hispanics[/inlinetweet]; Puerto Ricans overall are somewhat worse off than other U.S. Hispanics on several indicators of well-being. They have lower median household incomes and a lower homeownership rate, and are more likely to be poor. Between 2011 and 2013, 44 percent of children ages three to four were not attending preschool, and between 2011 and 2012, 38 percent of high school students in Puerto Rico did not graduate on time.  In 2014, 54 percent of children’s parents lacked a secure source of employment. In 2012, Puerto Rican government statistics indicate 640,000 families on the island received SNAP benefits (food stamps); that is almost the same number of assisted households as in Pennsylvania, which has a population over three times as large as the island.

What Can be Done?

As both the U.S. and Puerto Rico work to resolve the economic crisis on the island, it is important that we focus on the implications of this crisis for children. We need to identify evidenced- based policies that will pave the way for the healthy development of the more than 700,000 Puerto Rican children in their journey to adulthood. Among policies to consider are programs that increase access to quality early childhood care and education, and establishing integrated student services on the island. Quality early childhood education programs can have positive effects on children’s cognitive, language, and social development; this is especially true for children at risk for poor outcomes. Integrated student services, which offer an array of wraparound services such as health care, mental health, and mentoring,  as well as academic support,  have been shown to decrease dropout rates and absenteeism and increase math scores and grade point average.

There are many available resources that provide information on programs that work. We cannot just sit on the sidelines and watch the prospects for the healthy development of so many Puerto Rican children continue to deteriorate.