A US federal judge Tuesday extended three US welfare programs to the residents of Puerto Rico.
The case, brought by nine low-income Puerto Ricans, examined the island’s access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and Medicare Part D, which provides for prescription drug coverage. Although the US Congress granted citizenship to residents of the island over 100 years ago in the Jones-Shafroth Act, Puerto Ricans have traditionally not been eligible for coverage by these welfare programs.
“To be blunt, the federal government discriminates against Americans who live in Puerto Rico. The question, in this case, is whether that discrimination is constitutional,” Judge William Young wrote in his 70-page ruling.
Arguing against extending access to Americans living in Puerto Rico, the government contended that Puerto Ricans are generally exempt from paying federal income tax, and budgetary constraints make the extension impractical. Further, the government theorized that allowing Puerto Ricans to have access to SNAP, SSI, and Medicare Part D would disrupt the island economy, as it could allegedly act as labor disincentive.
In rejecting these claims, the court found that there was no rational basis for the exclusion of Puerto Ricans from the programs. Beneficiaries of the welfare programs generally do not pay federal income tax regardless of their location. Congress also could have addressed budgetary constraints for the programs in a more equitable manner across the US. Additionally, Judge Young cited the labor incentive requirements for SNAP as sufficient evidence to discredit the concerns of economic disruption on the island.
The decision will have significant implications for the millions of Americans living in poverty in Puerto Rico and recovering from the recent devastation caused by natural disasters on the island.