Imagine that you are one of the 8 million Americans Qualifying for SSI Benefits: Supplemental Security Income that provides relief to those with limited resources, income, or a disability. You’ve worked hard all your life and now, through no fault of your own, you can’t even meet your basic needs to stay afloat. For millions of Americans, that is their everyday reality. Programs like SSI provide a modest cash increase the most vulnerable families in the country: those who care for the nearly 1.2 million children with disabilities and the elderly. If ever a population defined the need for a social safety net, it would be SSI beneficiaries. Fortunately, the program exists and, however modest, the monthly support makes all the difference.
Unless you live in Puerto Rico. Due to the current state of the island’s territory, Congress can and does discriminate against these fellow Americans in multiple ways, such as excluding them from SSI benefits. The impact of territorial inequality has been immensely challenging for Puerto Rico in recent years, particularly when faced with multiple natural disasters, including the devastation of Hurricane Maria, the 2020 earthquakes, and most recently the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the frustration that many Puerto Ricans feel toward the federal government goes beyond immediate responses to natural disasters. The long-term lack of equality under federal laws and programs, including SSI benefits, represents the abject failure of the federal government to listen to and respect the will of the majority of voters in Puerto Rico. In 2012, 2017, and again in 2020, the island’s voters rejected territorial inequality, favoring statehood over all other non-territorial options at the polls.
Statehood for Puerto Rico would provide 3.2 million U.S. citizens with the same treatment under federal laws and programs, which would not only help with immediate disaster recovery, but also with long-term social needs, such as those they receive SSI benefits. Statehood would empower Puerto Rico to achieve significant economic progress by eliminating the uncertainty of undemocratic and undefined territory status, which would attract investment. It would also provide equal voting and representation rights in the United States Congress, which establishes the federal laws that Puerto Ricans live under, as well as one vote for president, which is currently denied to them. As full partners, Puerto Ricans would also share responsibility for the Union’s obligations by paying federal income tax, the only tax that is not fully applied to local residents.
Fortunately, there are reasons to hope that Puerto Rico’s nightmare of a century of territorial inequality will finally come to an end. During last year’s campaign, then-candidate Joe Biden made it clear that he personally supports statehood for Puerto Ricoand that the federal government must respect the will of local voters. Then, on the same day as the 2020 general election, a clear the majority of voters in Puerto Rico said “YES” to statehood and the citizen equality that accompanies it. And recently, Florida Senators Rick Scott, who is chairman of the Senate Republican National Committee, and Marco Rubio reaffirmed his support for statehood, showing that this issue has bipartisan support.
As Congress continues to debate Proposed legislation To permanently end Puerto Rico’s territorial inequality and establish a path to statehood, the Biden administration was recently given the opportunity to make immediate progress toward equality for Puerto Rico in the Supreme Court case of the United States of United States against Vaello-Madero. The case addresses whether a provision of the Social Security Act that refuses to provide SSI to residents of Puerto Rico violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution.
However, in a disconcerting maneuver, President Biden did not demonstrate with action what he promised with his words and allowed the Department of Justice to defend the right of the federal government to continue to discriminate against the American citizens of Puerto Rico. Biden statement that such discrimination is “inconsistent with the policies and values of my administration,” and that “there can be no second-class citizens in the United States of America,” while at the same time not ordering the Department of Justice to act on its alleged Values and Policies shows that either he failed to exercise true leadership within his own administration on this issue, or his values and policies do not make sense to the US citizens of Puerto Rico.
It remains to be seen what the Supreme Court will decide in this SSI case and if Congress addresses this specific aspect of territorial inequality. But, if President Biden still wants to prove that he is a man of his word, then he must act. supporting legislation permanently end territorial discrimination and second-class citizenship for the people of Puerto Rico through statehood. It is time for all American citizens to get the help they deserve and it is time for the Biden administration to keep its promises to the people of Puerto Rico.