By Lisa Levy, Esq.
Director of Policy & Advocacy
Growing up in New York, I, like many others, had neighbors and friends with ties to Puerto Rico. Parents may have been born there, and because families and friends were still there, vacations (for those who could afford them) were spent on the island. They returned with stories about their abuelas, cousins, great food, beaches, and long days spent in the sun. New York has long been a place of many cultures, where you dance at many parades to whatever music is playing, eat all kinds of food, and hear songs in many languages. That was how geography was learned.
The greatest number of Puerto Rican transplants live in New York, with more than 1 million counted in the last US census. New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito proudly counts herself among them, having been born and raised in San Juan. An internal source at one noted airline informed me that there are an average of 18 flights to all of Puerto Rico’s airports from NY each day. With New York’s political elite long acknowledging this island’s importance, New York’s current Governor and Mayor, and past mayoral candidates have visited to campaign and address New York and local issues. Additionally, many, including New York City Council Members, State Senators, and Assemblymembers have taken the annual pilgrimage to Puerto Rico for the Somos el Futuro Conference to learn about policies affecting the Hispanic and Puerto Rican population in New York. Somos also holds a Conference in Albany to address issues affecting those of Hispanic and Puerto Rico descent.
Many New Yorkers were relieved this week to be informed that poverty in our city has decreased slightly over the last few years, from 21.24% in 2012 to 19.98% in 2015. But it was also frustrating to note that almost half the population of Puerto Rico, 46.1%, continue to live below the poverty line.
Puerto Rico has been struggling financially for several years, almost on the edge of economic collapse. Unfortunately, this is not just about numbers. This is about individual people who have lost their jobs, who cannot feed their families, and who are unable to afford a basic living. This is about children whose schools are being closed because of debt; and this is in the United States.
Not since the Great Depression have we had poverty to such a great extent as this, in this nation. In the US, for a family of three in 2015, the poverty threshold is $18,871. According to the US Census Bureau, median household income for Puerto Rico in 2015 was only $18,626, whereas in the US, it was $55,775. More than 25% of Puerto Ricans live below 50% of the poverty level, and a whopping 54.6% live below 125% of the poverty level. The unemployment rate is 12.2%, more than twice as high as the US average.
Puerto Rico is a key part of the United States. The federal government should take concrete steps to reduce the poverty and misery.