Court says Puerto Rico entitled to social programs
Excluding Puerto Rico residents from federal welfare benefits programs that are available to citizens of other states and territories is an unconstitutional violation of equal protection, a district court judge ruled Tuesday in a decision that mirrors a similar ruling on a related question on Guam.
Federal Judge William Young struck down the U.S. Department of Health Human Services' discriminatory policy that denies Puerto Ricans benefits under the Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicare Part D Low-Income Subsidy programs solely due to their residency in Puerto Rico.
Young's decision came on the heels of the First Circuit Court of Appeals’ historic ruling in United States v. Vaello Madero earlier this year, which held that residents of Puerto Rico could not be excluded from Supplemental Security Income. The court ruled in favor of nine plaintiffs.
On Guam, Federal Judge Frances Tydingco-Gatewood issued a similar decision in Schaller v. U.S. Social Security Administration, which tackled the same program.
The U.S. Supreme Court is likely to take up these issues, which impact nearly 4 million Americans living in five U.S. territories, according to Equally American.
“Federal courts have increasingly come to recognize that constitutional rights cannot depend on whether someone lives in a state or territory,” said Neil Weare, President and Founder of Equally American, which advocates for equality and civil rights for residents of the territories.
One of the plaintiffs, 74-year-old Sixta Gladys Peña Martínez, received up to $735 per month in SSI benefits and between $10 and $198 per month in SNAP benefits when she was living in New Yrk between 2008 and 2016 until she moved to Puerto Rico in 2017.
“No citizen should have to choose between receiving the basic benefits they need to survive and being able to live in the place they call home. The court today reiterated that this kind of discrimination is not just wrong, but unconstitutional,” Weare said.
The decision expands on Vaello Madero, addressing not only SSI benefits, but also the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as "food stamps," and the Medicare Part D Low-Income Subsidy (LIS), which helps cover the cost of a prescription drug plan.
The court rejected the United States argument that it should limit its ruling to the nine plaintiffs in the case and allow the government to continue discriminating against other residents of Puerto Rico that would be eligible for the programs. Instead the court issued an injunction that applies across Puerto Rico, providing a 60-day administrative stay for the federal government to implement its ruling, although its ruling will apply immediately to the nine plaintiffs.
The federal government is almost certain to appeal both the merits of the case and the scope of the injunction to the First Circuit, and from there the Supreme Court.
“If Pena Martinez, Vaello Madero, and Schaller are upheld, it could mean billions more in direct federal funding to the most vulnerable residents of U.S. territories,” Weare said. “This is critical support that communities across the United State rely on, and territories should be no different. Equality in federal programs for residents of the territories is a matter of basic dignity and justice.”
The federal safety net is flimsier and more porous in Puerto Rico than in the rest of the nation. Three basic federal programs created for the financially neediest Americans are off limits to residents of Puerto Rico: 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 the Medicare Part D Low-Income Subsidy (“LIS,” also called “Extra Help”), which helps cover the cost of a prescription drug plan. Instead of these three welfare programs Congress funds substitute initiatives on the island, but they are less generous by far. To be blunt, the federal government discriminates against Americans who live in Puerto Ric
1. Challenged Programs The big picture is that residents of Puerto Rico are categorically excluded from the SSI, SNAP, and LIS programs that operate in the fifty states, the District of Columbia, and some territories (the Northern Mariana Islands for SSI benefits, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands for SNAP). Id. ¶¶ 6-8, 18-20, 32- 33. Instead, the federal government funds alternative welfare programs for Puerto Rico, but the substitute programs offer less coverage and smaller benefits than do the SSI, SNAP, and LIS programs. Id. ¶¶ 11-12, 23-24, 35.
The Government argues that there is a rational basis for excluding residents of Puerto Rico from these welfare programs. In fact, it claims there are three good rationales: (1) residents of Puerto Rico are generally exempt from paying the personal federal income tax; (2) the cost of extending these programs to Puerto Rico would be very high; and (3) fully granting these benefits in Puerto Rico might disrupt the island’s economy. The Government also notes that these three Case 3:18-cv-01206-WGY Document 97 Filed 08/03/20 Page 3 of 70  reasons were accepted by the Supreme Court forty years ago when, in a pair of short decisions issued in 1978 and 1980, it rejected similar suits challe
The Government argues that, because of Puerto Rico’s high poverty and unemployment rates, extending these benefit programs may have an especially adverse impact on labor incentives on the island. The Plaintiffs assert that this economic disruption theory is scientifically baseless, and that pumping more money into Puerto Rico would in fact boost the economy. That may be, but the Court cannot say on this record that the theory is so empirically shaky as to be irrational per se. Nevertheless, the economic disruption theory cannot rationally explain the categorical exclusion of residents of Puerto Rico from these particular programs. That is so, in part, because these programs all provide uniform benefits nationwide no matter the local poverty rate or other economic variation