Eighteen months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico, residents have received little of the federal assistance they were promised. Now food-stamp cuts have left over a million Puerto Ricans in desperate circumstances, the Washington Post reported on Monday. Island households already lived close to the bone. Just over 44 percent of the island’s population lives in poverty — a rate higher than that of any U.S. state — which may help explain why an estimated 130,000 people left the island and did not return after Hurricane Maria. Thanks in part to congressional inaction, HIV patients sit in soiled diapers that health-care workers cannot afford to replace, the Post reported. Families slash food budgets and plan to eat less. “It’s very hard. It is so unfair. That cut is going to kill us,” the administrator of a clinic for HIV patients told the Post.
And relief is uncertain. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but they do not have voting representation in Congress, and the federal government doesn’t fund the commonwealth’s social services the same way it funds states. That leaves the island’s households vulnerable to a Congress and an executive branch in which they have no advocate. While Congress initially authorized food-stamp aid after the hurricane, the Post reports that it missed a deadline to reauthorize those funds, and future legislation may encounter an obstacle in the Oval Office. President Trump is not known for his commitment to a strong welfare state. His administration has repeatedly called for cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, to housing aid, and to Medicaid spending. He isn’t known for his loving embrace of Latinx people, either. And he has a reputation for indulging in petty hostilities toward perceived political enemies. Puerto Rico almost serves as a locus point for these political forces, and the results so far are grim.
On top of that, Trump may have an additional vendetta against the island that stems, partially, from criticism he’s received from the island’s elected officials, who lean left-of-center. Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan and current co-chair of Senator Bernie Sanders’s campaign for president, reiterated that criticism as recently as last week, when she announced her bid to become the island’s governor. “The day after the hurricane, it was clear that President Trump and his Republican government were going to leave us to die,” she said, according to Reuters.
In 2018, the president reacted harshly to Cruz, and to revised estimates of the hurricane’s death toll, which implied grave failures on the part of his administration. As the Post reported at the time, he blamed the higher death toll on Democratic machinations.
The island still hasn’t recovered from Hurricane Maria. Trump’s vendettas may result in even more deaths, and further displace the island’s population. A food-stamp crisis could spur more people to seek possible opportunities somewhere else. Even if Puerto Rico does get its food-stamp aid, it has other outstanding needs — homelessness, damaged infrastructure, a struggling health-care system — and help may not be forthcoming from the White House. Trump, the Post reports now, “has also privately signaled he will not approve any additional help for Puerto Rico beyond the food-stamp money, setting up a congressional showdown with Democrats who have pushed for more expansive help for the island.” Trump seems to think the island deserves whatever it gets, that its problems are intractable, that the responsibility for solving them lies anywhere but with the nation that colonized the island and then denied it representation. It’ll take more than food stamps to fully rectify the injustice that afflicts Puerto Rico. The island’s sufferings grant the question of its statehood — or perhaps its independence — particular urgency. Representation is the only way to safeguard it against the dehumanizing predilections of American presidents to come.