More than 80 per cent of children in Puerto Rico live in high-poverty areas, according to a study released Wednesday that also found the percentage of local teens who neither work nor attend school is double that in the U.S.
The economic gaps between children in the U.S. territory and those on the mainland could widen, according to the study published by the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights group. "These factors represent an immediate risk," said Nayda Rivera-Hernandez, senior research analyst. "We have to give priority to our children ... If we don't, the island will suffer."
The report found that about 56 per cent of Puerto Rican children live in poverty, compared with 22 per cent for the U.S. as a whole. Still more live in high-poverty areas where services are relatively scarce. Puerto Rico's overall poverty rate is about 45 per cent, roughly triple the U.S. rate. Puerto Rico also has the highest U.S. rate of children who are raised by a single parent, at 56 per cent.
Rivera-Hernandez called on Puerto Rico's government to create more programs to reduce poverty and provide financial aid for children and their parents as the U.S. territory tries to emerge from a five-year recession. Yanitsia Irizarry, secretary of the island's Department of Family, said Puerto Rico has agreed with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Maryland-based non-profit that funded the study, to provide more resources to needy children and their families.
Irizarry said the department also has numerous programs aimed at alleviating poverty among families that qualify for financial aid. About one-third of high school students in Puerto Rico do not graduate on time, compared to one-quarter overall in the U.S., according to the study.
Angie Melendez, a single mother who lives in a San Juan public housing complex, said she sells pastries and other goods outside a local hospital to pay for the college education of her 20-year-old son, who is seeking an accounting degree. "That's my goal, for him to be a professional ... so he doesn't have to suffer like I have suffered," she said. Even so, she said, he won't graduate in four years because "I can't afford to pay 12 credits."