In searching for initiatives leading to growth, Puerto Rico has to listen to young people. 

Most young Puerto Ricans live in poverty levels. They know firsthand what they need to progress, and they know about the structural gaps where both government and society abandon them.

At a recent roundtable with El Nuevo Día, young people from diverse backgrounds, but with poverty as a common factor, clearly drew the obstacles and tools they need to get ahead.

The picture depicts an insensitive, unjust and disjointed system. It details the lack of interagency coordination and of a systemic vision that recognizes that children’s problems require cross-cutting solutions.

This image shows that, for example, children in State custody do not have the basic skills to live independently once they reach legal age. Many of them graduate with very limited skills or tools to join the labor market. The paradox is that public education receives the largest budget cut.

Our children and young people face, almost alone, personal, family and social difficulties. They need mentors and public or private entities to listen and advise them. For example, those who were at the roundtable remarked how important teachers’ dedication is for their lives.

Many do not have opportunities to fully exercise their democratic right to actively participate in the search and implementation of solutions to the problems that affect them.

Their stories put faces to data indicating that 58 percent of poor children and young people suffer institutional abuse. And that 4,736 children do not have a permanent home, or that more than 300 public school students are pregnant. Many live with their grandparents or in homes where only one parent works. Most live in female-headed households with a minimum income.

Their recommendations are consistent with those reiterated by organizations such as the Youth Development Institute (YDI), which annually monitors the government’s investment in children. Most of the time, as data shows, this investment is inadequate and fragmented.

Their first recommendation is to protect the investment in programs that benefit children, especially those for education and mental health services. But the trend is to keep on cutting this line on the budget, which results in more disadvantages for this population. For example, according to the YDI report, that between 2014 and 2019, the areas of mental and emotional well-being suffered cuts of more than 20 percent, even though studies show an increase in suicidal tendencies among young people. This despite the fact that, since 2000, Puerto Rico has lost more than 5,000 people to suicide.

It is urgent to create opportunities for the economic mobility of their families to transform the island. 

These and other recommendations have been repeated for years without the proper feedback from the government. It is time to pay attention to them. A prosperous Puerto Rico with sustainable development requires that public investment nurtures the promise living in every child. 

Children and young people are the seeds of our society. It is contradictory to aspire to a prosperous and sustainable Puerto Rico without a comprehensive and effective policy that will get tomorrow's leaders out of poverty.

This month dedicated to childhood and prevention of child abuse calls on the government and the rest of the sectors to find and create spaces to care for this population and to implement actions that open possibilities for progress. Let us also join the effort to build a future vision of the Puerto Rico that will soon be in their hands.

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