Friday, September 23, 2011

A Grim Outlook on Poverty

The U.S Census Bureau released some staggering numbers underlining the precarious economic situation in which many families in Puerto Rico are facing. According to the latest statistics from 2010, 45% of the island's families are living below the poverty level, defined as those having an annual income of $22,314 or less for a household of four. Back in 2000, the poverty level was at 44.6%. (Note: the island's population experienced a notable decrease over the past ten years). Moreover, the Census also revealed that 36.7% of the island's households are beneficiaries of the Nutrition Assistance Program (PAN). In theory, PAN (colloquially known as "cupones") functions similarly to the mainland's food stamp program. At the root of the problem is the high level of unemployment and the historic low level of labor participation rate, which is estimated at just under 40%. Both factors have pushed an increasing number of families on the precipice of financial disaster.

Particularly heartrending is a report published by the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), which revealed that 56% of the island's children live below the poverty level. To help remedy this egregious problem, the U.S federal government has consistently provided economic assistance to the island. However, despite such social transfer programs, the island remains stuck in a sort of twilight zone. The reasons for this are numerous, ranging from a sclerotic local government to the misuse of public funds. A perfect example of the latter is exemplified by the Special Community Trust Fund, an initiative which begun under the administration of former Governor Sila María Calderón. This $1 billion social program designed to help families living in poverty has sparked a tremendous amount of controversy as the money in the trust fund has mostly dried up. Furthermore, it has far from achieved its intended goal to help the island's poorest communities. The purpose of this fund was to help construct homes in hundreds of communities that are currently living in dilapidated conditions. Many of the island's social problems, a skyrocketing crime rate and an increase in the high school dropout rate, can be attributed to the high level of poverty.

(Photo Credit: The image above was obtained from

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Force to be Reckoned With

The U.S Department of Justice (DOJ) lambasted the Puerto Rican Police Department in a report released last Thursday condemning it of civil rights violations, corruption, and other "illegal activities." The findings confirm what many have long known about most police officers on the island. In fact, the American Civil Liberty Union (ACLU), along with other organizations, have long called for the U.S Congress to look into the abuses committed by the island's police force. Instances where the police have been accused of using excessive force have occurred on a countless number of occasions, most notably during the University of Puerto Rico student demonstrations. The report also stated that the PRPD, which is comprised of over 17,000 officers, has consistently failed to investigate domestic violence cases, and many police officers have been found to discriminate island residents of Dominican descent.

As expected, Police Chief Emilio Díaz Colón has come out in defense of his underlings. During a press conference, he stated that "not one single police officer has come to commit civil rights violations." Furthermore, he contends that the police force will continue to do its job with dignity and respect." He did concede that the PRPD will have to implement "some" changes, and will have to provide its officers with the necessary training as suggested in the DOJ's report, which put forth 133 recommendations. Nevertheless, specific details on how the island's police force will be transformed were not provided by the Police Chief. To his credit, the PRPD suffers from a severe shortage of funding, which raises questions as to how it will be reformed.

Meanwhile, Gov. Fortuño has stated that his administration has sent a proposal, back in March, specifying how 110 of the 133 recommendations listed on the DOJ's report will be put into place. As there seems to be no end in sight to the island's crime wave, the homicide rate is 22.5 per 100,000 residents (it is nearly double that of Louisiana's, which has the U.S' highest rate), most have long had little or no confidence in the PRPD's ability to keep the streets safe. By the same token, little trust is bestowed upon other local government agencies, i.e Department of Education, the Department of Family, among others. This latest blow from federal authorities will hopefully bring about some substantive changes in the PRPD, but nobody is holding their breath. According to Gov. Fortuño, it can take as long as 15 years for the reform process to come full circle.

(Photo credit: Ricardo Arduengo/Associated Press)