For months to come, Puerto Ricans are likely to be forced to endure the catastrophic aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
The island territory has been left in near-total darkness after the Category 4 hurricane made landfall, knocking down electricity infrastructure that could take months or longer to totally repair. They are facing shortages in basic resources like diesel fuel that are necessary to keep vulnerable populations alive in the absence of more traditional power supplies. Those shortages have already left some dead. Roads have been completely washed away in some places.
But, as the island of more than three million people hurries to put things in working order alongside American National Guard troops, some are concerned that the island won’t be treated in the same way as the US government treated Texas and Florida after their natural disasters earlier this year. And, some are plain confused about what Puerto Rico’s relationship is with the US — and what responsibility Washington actually has to help out.
Here’s what you need to know.
Puerto Rico is a United States territory, but not a state
As such, Puerto Ricans are US Citizens, but they an’t vote in federal elections. The territory has a representative in Congress — called the resident commissioner of Puerto Rico — but that individual does not have voting rights on the floor of the House of Representatives. The representative, currently Jennifer Gonzalez, is able to sit on committees to influence legislation, however.
Even though they can’t vote in federal elections, Puerto Ricans still have the same protections as other US citizens
That means that they’re governed by US federal laws, but also that they could vote in federal elections if they moved to the mainland — which they could do without legal issue.
Puerto Ricans don’t have to pay all US federal taxes, but they do pay some
Most Puerto Ricans are not required to pay federal income tax, unless they have income from a state in the US, or if they are federal employees. But, they are still required to pay import and export taxes, federal commodity taxes, social security taxes, Medicare taxes.
As such, the state qualifies for less reimbursements than a regular state does. That includes receiving a smaller fraction of Medicaid funding than it would if it were an official part of the US. The territory is also excluded from the Supplemental Security Income program.
American law covering disaster assistance does not exclude the territory…