Congress should extend the Child Tax Credit to families in Puerto Rico

Congress should extend the Child Tax Credit to families in Puerto Rico
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The day before Hurricane Maria demolished Puerto Rico, 57 percent of the Island’s children lived in poverty, 39 percent in extreme poverty. These children and families were living on the edge and Maria pushed them off a financial cliff.  

According to a new study commissioned by the Youth Development Institute of Puerto Rico and presented in Congress last week, thirty percent of Puerto Rican families with children lost their jobs or had their work hours reduced after the hurricane.

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The poorest families took the hardest hit and they are still having trouble meeting their most basic needs. According to the study, after the hurricane, low-income families in Puerto Rico had difficulty accessing the most basic needs, including paying utilities (40 percent), purchasing food (38 percent), buying clothing (24 percent) and securing school materials for children’s education (21 percent).

The destruction and disruption wrought by Hurricane Maria is taking an emotional toll on Puerto Rico’s children and their ability to thrive. Economic precarity will also hinder the Island’s ability to recover and impede long-term economic development.

Prior to Maria economic insecurity amongst families with children and youth had fueled the migration of hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans to the continental United States. This was in great part contributed to the rapid decline of the island’s child population. Between 2007 and 2017 Puerto Rico’s child population decreased by 35 percent. Maria has accelerated the exodus. Puerto Rico’s Department of Education estimated a 30,000 drop in school enrollment in 2018-2019, on top of the 20 percent annual decrease it has been experiencing in recent years.

This rapid decline of the youth population, coupled with the high rates of poverty and economic insecurity, present one of the most pressing challenges to Puerto Rico’s economic development and long-term sustainability.

According to a vast body of research, growing up in poverty means that children are less likely to develop to their full potential, including their ability to be healthy, educated and economically self-sufficient adults. In other words, a continuous decline in its child population and high child poverty rates means that over the next 5 to 10 years, fewer adults will be ready to enter the workforce and fully contribute to Puerto Rico’s social and economic development.

Hence, after Maria, it is more urgent than ever that the children left on the Island be given the opportunity to develop their full potential. Addressing child poverty in Puerto Rico will require a multi-pronged approach but there is something Congress can do to address this problem immediately.

Congress can take a step in the right direction by extending the Child Tax Credit to families of one and two children in Puerto Rico.

Although most Puerto Rican families do not pay federal income taxes, they do pay federal payroll taxes, which is why families of three or more children can claim the credit in the Island. However, most Puerto Rican families do not qualify for the tax credit because they are having under two children. This extension would mitigate the economic losses of working families after Hurricane Maria, reward hard work, reduce child poverty and incentivize families with children to stay on the Island.

This extension has already been recommended by the bipartisan Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth for Puerto Rico and supported by 53 legislators, Democratic and Republican, who have sponsored several separate bills on the issue. However, the vast majority of these bills are not bipartisan. Given the potential benefit for children and Puerto Rico’s economy, it is time for a significant bipartisan effort to make the extension of the Child Tax Credit for one and two families a reality for Puerto Rico.

As Congress continues to deliberate on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria how best to help the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico get back on their feet, the Child Tax Credit stands out as a straight-forward solution.

This is a common-sense policy that is good for kids and has bipartisan support. It’s time to act now.

Amanda Rivera Flores is the executive director of the Youth Development Institute of Puerto Rico, a nonprofit organization based in San Juan, Puerto Rico.