Supreme Court Upholds Excluding Puerto Rico from Benefits Program

The Supreme Court has decided to uphold the differential treatment of Puerto Rico, ruling that Congress can exclude the U.S. territory from a benefits program that is available to all 50 states and the District of Columbia. 

Puerto Rico therefore remains ineligible for the Supplemental Security Income Program, which provides benefits to older, disabled and blind Americans. The court upheld that the exclusion does not unconstitutionally discriminate against Puerto Ricans. 

The ruling said that the Supreme Court was bound by a pair of earlier rulings that upheld the federal law that created SSI, and excluded U.S. territories from it. 

Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory for a century and a quarter, since the Spanish American War in 1898. Its residents are U.S. citizens who can vote in primaries, but not the presidential election. They have limited congressional representation. 

The decision left many Puerto Ricans outraged. Puerto Rico’s Governor Pedro Pierluisi said that statehood is the only solution to Puerto Rico’s ongoing second-class status within the U.S. In a statement, Pierluisi said that the decision confirms the territorial status is discriminatory for the U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico. 

The governor also noted that this is not the only unequal treatment that faces Puerto Rico, including in other federal programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. 

Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress, Jenniffer Gonzalez, said that the exclusion was an “unbelievable discrimination” that keeps more than 300,000 people in extreme poverty. 

The case was first referred to the Department of Justice during the former President Donald Trump administration, but it has been maintained even after President Joe Biden took office. The Biden administration has said that it supports changing the law to include Puerto Rico in SSI payments. 

Territories like Puerto Rico receive a boiled down version of a program, the Aid to the Aged, Blind and Disabled, which has a more stringent eligibility requirement and pays less benefits. 

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