Left behind after Hurricane Maria: Puerto Rico’s Children


March 19, 2018

Even before Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico with historic, sustained, 155-mile-per-hour winds, the U.S. island was facing an economic catastrophe of unprecedented magnitude.
For more than a decade, following a disastrous, U.S.-enforced tax policy that took effect around 2006, Puerto Rico shed jobs, suffered a loss of economic vitality, and saw such a significant increase in emigration that by 2011, well before Hurricane Maria’s visit in September 2017, there were, for the first time ever, more Puerto Ricans living on the U.S. mainland than on the island itself.

And then Maria hit.

When hurricanes hit Florida and Texas last year, disaster relief was fairly quickly provided (although we can debate whether it was always the right type of relief, and whether it was enough).   Not so much in Puerto Rico.

As 2017 faded in to the new year, Save the Children, which sent front-line responders to the island, had this to report:

“Three months after the devastation caused by Maria’s 155-mile-per-hour winds, the impacts of this extreme disaster continue to be felt by children, families and communities.  Nearly all public schools across the island were closed into November.  Children lost nearly two months of education and for those schools that have opened, many are running on half-day schedules.  Behavioral and mental health needs are also rising.  Many children and caregivers are losing hope and, alarmingly, suicide rates across the island are reportedly on the rise.”

One of the people who travelled to Puerto Rico and saw the destruction first-hand was Amanda Bloom.  Bloom, a retired nurse and physician’s assistant and political activist living in Oakland, has ties to the island and went there at her own expense to volunteer her services.

Two problems Bloom immediately saw – problems that continue today – were poor water quality and shuttered schools.

Bloom says that even before Maria landed, Puerto Rico’s water quality was worst in the U.S.  “After, it’s way worse and the people most affected are infants and the elderly,” she told Voices for Human Needs.  “We don’t know yet how many people died as a result.  At first they were saying 16 (deaths).  Now they’re saying thousands.  Most of them were elderly.  Probably a lot of them were babies.”

Bloom adds: “FEMA never came through with food, water and supplies.  The response was sadly lacking, on top of a country where half the people are living in poverty and that means a lot of kids.”

Bloom says another way children were left stranded by Maria – particularly older, teenage children – was by the failure of many schools to re-open in a timely manner.  “Is their school open and accessible, because a lot of them aren’t,” Bloom said.  “A lot of kids I saw were having a really hard time.  They were so bored, sitting in a shelter and having nothing to do.”

Education, in fact, remains in crisis in Puerto Rico, as NPR has noted in its reporting on the island:

“Across the island, enrollment has shrunk by some 22,350 students since the storm hit, according to Puerto Rico’s Department of Education. That means about 1 in 13 kids are gone, and it’s unclear whether they’ll ever be back.”

Kendall Marsh is a composer/producer/film editor who recently spent several years in Puerto Rico and, along with Jose M. Umpierre, co-directed and co-produced Bancarrota, an hour-long documentary (Spanish, with English subtitles) that examines the root causes of Puerto Rico’s massive debt and economic crisis.  (You can also see the documentary here.)

Marsh cites another NPR story that discusses how officials are responding to Puerto Rico’s education crisis in order to privatize some schools:

“Speaking at a recent protest outside the Department of Education, Mercedes Martinez, president of the Puerto Rico Teachers’ Federation, likened the reform proposal to a corporate overhaul.

“’They think that because our island is vulnerable, because it doesn’t have electricity, that we’re going to let them privatize our schools, get rid of our teachers,’ she said.

“The teachers’ unions tick off a litany of concerns. They say that charter schools, freed from many of the rules that govern traditional public schools, will divert funding from those schools while being free to pay teachers less, eliminate benefits, and kick out under-performing students.”

Marsh, who was on the island with his family when Maria hit, witnessed the subsequent mass emigration first hand.  He told Voices for Human Needs, “When I left on Thanksgiving Day, 168,000 Puerto Ricans had left the island and there were another 100,000 one-way tickets booked through the end of 2017.  Predictions are another 200,000 will leave by the end of this year.  Many schools have lost students and teachers through emigration and the ones remaining, especially in rural areas, are struggling.”

Indeed, NPR reports that Puerto Rican officials plan to close 300 of the island’s 1,100 schools.  Although residents do not yet know which schools will be closed, a perverse irony is emerging:  Because of declining enrollment (caused both by Maria and Puerto Rico’s longstanding economic crisis), the island will actually receive less funds for education, due to federal funding formulas.

Cristina Novoa, a policy analyst for Early Childhood Policy at the Center for American Progress, grew up in Puerto Rico.  In the aftermath of Maria, she listed four areas where Puerto Rican children were in danger:

Food assistance and security.  Even before Maria wiped out Puerto Rican’s agriculture industry, the island already was importing 85 percent of its food – “making food security tenuous even in the best of circumstances.”  In addition, most Puerto Ricans lost access to clean drinking water.

Housing.  Prior to Maria, 31 percent of Puerto Rican children lived in households with a high housing burden – meaning households that spent at least one-third of income on housing.  “When housing consumes one-third of a family’s income, it becomes less likely that the family will be able to meet all of its children’s basic needs, and it increases the threat of eviction,” Novoa writes.

Health and medical care.  Puerto Rico’s medical facilities were severely damaged during Maria, and while all hospitals are reported open this month, many are operating with far fewer beds available.  And as of 2015, almost half of Puerto Rico’s population was enrolled in Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), but the federal government pays a smaller share of the island’s Medicaid costs than it pays in far more prosperous states. For some 50 years now, Congress has “block-granted” Medicaid funding for Puerto Rico, not responding to the increased need from the economic and weather disasters.  This placed Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program critically close to running out of money, until Congress finally acted last month to commit to paying all of Puerto Rico’s and the U.S. Virgin Island’s Medicaid costs through the disaster recovery period.  Even before the disasters, Puerto Rico had higher levels of infant mortality than the rest of the U.S. and far more Zika cases than the rest of the U.S.

Early education.  Novoa notes that as of 2015, 7,900 Puerto Rican children had child care subsidies.  “Yet without homes or centers, these are useless; families won’t be able to return to work without first rebuilding infrastructure.”  In addition, when Maria hit, Puerto Rico was home to 39 Head Start and 44 Early Head Start programs, which, together, provided quality child care and early education to more than 35,000 children.  Many of these centers will need to be rebuilt.

So what comes next for Puerto Rico and the island’s more than 700,000 children?  Notes Marsh:

“Puerto Ricans have a belief in education.  A belief in health care.  A belief in a civilized life.  A belief in social society.  And I hope they’re going to be able to keep it.”

Budget and Appropriations
Disaster relief
Early Childhood Education
Education and Youth Policy
Food and Nutrition
health care
Housing and Homelessness
Hurricane Maria
nutrition assistance
Puerto Rico