December 10, 2015

The Hill: The human impact of the Puerto Rico debt crisis

By Javier Ortiz

Last week Puerto Rico Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla painted a grim picture of the potential humanitarian crisis that could envelop the 3.5 American citizens on the island. Appearing before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Dec. 1to testify about the island’s dire debt crisis, he urged Congress to act. “Let us be clear, we have no cash left,” he told Republican and Democratic Senators. The governor was unambiguous – Puerto Rico’s government can’t pay its creditors and provide basic services for the territory’s residents.

Plagued for decades with a spiraling fiscal crisis, massive out migration, unemployment rates of double the national average and a median income of less than half of mainland states, the situation is dire. With a reported $73 billion in debt, Puerto Rico became insolvent in November.

This is a humanitarian crisis. We see it at the airport and across communities in every corner of our country. Anyone who can afford to move to the mainland – name the state and chances are that you are less than 4 degrees of separation from someone with family ties to Puerto Rico- is moving to take a job, or look for one. Over the past few years, an average of 48,000 people annually depart Puerto Rico for the mainland to find a better way of life – many of them doctors, scientists, technology experts and other high-level professionals. This has eroded the state of services on the island and has compounded problems, causing the island’s tax base to shrink – which the government relies on to pay out pensions and services and pay off its debt.

This week marked the fifth congressional hearing on the Puerto Rico debt crisis this year, and still, nothing has been done. While the hearings highlight a lack of consensus regarding basic facts and figures, the discussion remained astonishingly cold, with many neglecting to mention the real, human impact and face of this crisis. What will it take to get legislators to act? Will it take widespread breakdown of Puerto Rico’s ability to provide basic social services before Congress decides to wade in? By then, it may be too late.

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