A US federal judge on Monday ruled that it is unconstitutional to deny Puerto Ricans living in the US territory access to three federal welfare programs in a major decision cheered by many.
However, the judge also granted a two-month administrative stay of the injunction at the federal government’s request, which means the decision for now will apply only to the nine plaintiffs in the case.
Legal experts said that they expect the US government to appeal the ruling, and if unsuccessful, to take it as far as the US Supreme Court given the millions of dollars at stake.
“It’s a precedent, it’s a significant change, without a doubt. Whether it will be historic depends on its prevalence,” Bar Association of Puerto Rico president Edgardo Roman said.
A US Department of Justice spokesperson declined to comment on the decision.
In a 70-page ruling, Judge William Young called it a discriminatory policy to deny Puerto Ricans Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which provides extra income for the elderly, blind or disabled; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps; and Medicare Part D Low-Income Subsidy, which helps cover the cost of a prescription drug plan.
NET TOO POROUS
“The federal safety net is flimsier and more porous in Puerto Rico than in the rest of the nation,” Young wrote. “To be blunt, the federal government discriminates against Americans who live in Puerto Rico.”
The territory of 3.2 million people has a 43 percent poverty rate, and that the nine plaintiffs are poor enough to qualify for at least one of the three federal welfare programs, Young wrote.
The Northern Mariana Islands have access to SSI benefits, and Guam and the US Virgin Islands to SNAP, a program that Puerto Rico once had access to until the US Congress revoked eligibility in 1981, he said.
Congress funds substitute programs in Puerto Rico, “but they are less generous by far,” offering less coverage and smaller benefits, he said.
“There is no doubt that the constitutional violations here are systemic,” Young wrote.
He acknowledged that the US government has provided three rationales for excluding Puerto Rico residents from the programs: cost, potential disruption to the island’s economy and the fact that those living on the island are generally exempt from paying the personal federal income tax.
However, Young in part argued that Congress could have spread out benefit reductions equally, and that poor people generally do not pay income tax regardless of where they live.
He also said that from 2000 to 2005, Puerto Rico residents paid more in federal taxes than six states and all the other US territories combined.
In addition, in fiscal year 2019, the federal government collected more than US$3.5 billion in taxes from Puerto Rico residents, he wrote.
Young’s decision also is expected to generate even more discussion about Puerto Rico’s political status as voters face an upcoming non-binding referendum on whether they support statehood.
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