The government's intention to postpone until 2023 the full implementation of the job- requirement for Nutrition Assistance Program (PAN) participants able to join the formal labour market, does not help the efforts to reduce poverty that is holding half of our population back.
Not addressing such urgent action, as agreed in the certified fiscal plan, creates a dependency culture that limits development and mobility opportunities for thousands of Puerto Ricans. Creating a solid work culture is an essential condition to improve our economy, as well as so the self-esteem of so many people with the potential to help build a better island.
The Oversight Board has insisted that the government must comply with the measure as a way to boost the economic recovery of the island. This initiative may increase the rickety labor participation rate, one of the lowest in the world with 40 percent. According to official data, that figure translates into 850,900 people who, on average, had non-agricultural jobs from January to October 2018. The tax burden falls on them. In contrast, 1.3 million people would benefit from PAN, among them, people who can work.
Facing the labour market reality and the island population´s profile, PAN rules provide for participants aged between 18 to 59 to study or contribute to society through formal jobs. They can also do it through 80 voluntary work hours per month, as a way to repay public assistance received. The job-requirement applies as of the third month since the person begins to receive the Family Card. It could be extended to nine, if authorized by the US Department of Agriculture.
Like the unemployment insurance benefit, this program is intended to ensure that people without income sources receive temporary assistance. In the case of those who can work, it is expected for them to join the labor market to get out of poverty. This is the case in other US jurisdictions. The proposal exempts the elderly, children, university students and people with physical or mental limitations – for whom PAN is a benefit they should keep-.
Unfortunately, in Puerto Rico, clientelism imposed by “party-ocracy” has focused its offer in exchange for votes, in perpetuating a culture of dependence and conformism that aggravates our economic and social crisis. Work dignifies a person, improves people´s self-esteem because it offers opportunities to develop their abilities. In so doing, they can contribute to Puerto Rico.
However, about $ 1,27 billion allocated in temporary PAN benefits after the 2017 disaster could run out next month. The Puerto Rico Department of Family Affairs has to consider contingencies in case the request for an additional $ 600 million allocation, to extend the benefit for another year, does not pass. In any case, implementing a transition plan -in line with the certified fiscal plan- is the reasonable way to go. Both private and third sectors can be allies to include this population in the labour market.
The Board and the government have to join forces so that proposals that break decades-old patterns work. The mass exodus of Puerto Ricans to the mainland –which grew after the hurricane- has been a traditional way to address poverty. Federal assistance programs have been the other way. None of these approaches addresses the economic crisis aggravated by fiscal insolvency and lack of access to markets.
Therefore, it is crucial to avoid delays in reforms and deadlines established in the fiscal plans designed to create structures that would boost the economy, with new jobs leading to a productive citizenship, proud to work to drive Puerto Rico forward.
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