Can I hold your attention for another second? The future of Puerto Rico’s children after María.

The last few days have brought on a barrage of media attention to the impact of Hurricane María in an already fragile Puerto Rico. As many news outlets have reported, the island, after withstanding the strongest hurricane in over 90 years, is treading into a humanitarian crisis. Basic necessities such as food, water, medication and gas are beginning to be scarce, and the systems that hold society together- communication and law and order, have all but failed. The effects of the hurricane will continue to be felt well past this initial crisis- past the days when the lines with red containers at the gas station dwindle, the shelves of supermarkets are replenished, power generators are turned off, and our cellphones function normally. The effects of the hurricane will aggravate an already existing crisis that compromises the ability of the island to rebuild and prosper in its future- the fact that nearly 6 in 10 children in Puerto Rico live under poverty.

Such a high rate of child poverty should have already been considered a crisis given that the island’s child population has decreased by nearly a third over the last ten years. This rate of decline could be further accelerated as families seek to escape the untenable consequences of the hurricane through migration. If Puerto Rico has less children, and the majority of this already diminishing population is challenged by poverty, that means that the island will be pressed to have a healthy and productive workforce in the future that for example, during another natural disaster, can engineer and repair electric infrastructure, drive trucks to supply gasoline (an issue we are having already), clear the roads, repair dams, and coordinate aid logistics, just to mention a few. Hence, the combined issues of a declining child population and child poverty put Puerto Rico at both an economic disadvantage, and threaten its national security.

Now, in addition to the obstacles to opportunity posed by poverty, the majority of children in Puerto Rico will need to cope with the additional hurdles thrown their way by Maria’s catastrophic winds and flooding. The stories of life after Hurricane Katrina give us enough information to begin forecasting the challenges that will now stand in the way of all children in Puerto Rico, but particularly those living in poverty. These children will likely face a myriad of destabilizing forces in their lives. Losing homes and possessions will translate to months, and even years, of housing instability. In turn, this housing stability will affect school attendance and performance. Trauma caused by the experiences of flooding or losing a home will lead to a spike in mental health conditions, which also have an impact on learning.

According to sociologists Fothergill and Peek, who tracked children who survived Katrina into their adulthood, there were three types of “tracks” that children took after the catastrophe. Children whose parents had resources before and after Katrina, adapted and at times excelled. Children who had very little before the hurricane, and lost everything as a result, fared the worst- often dropping out of high school and sinking into unemployment as adults. Finally, children who had lost everything, but still had an anchoring adult in their lives, what they deemed as “fluctuating equilibrium”, staying afloat but struggling with depression or anxiety. What does this imply for Puerto Rico? The road to recovery will certainly need to prioritize supporting children and their families, especially those living in or near poverty before Maria. Otherwise, the effects of the hurricane could further hinder the ability of the island’s most precious resource- its youth- to become productive members of society, and in turn, this will have an effect on the island’s ability to thrive.

This will require the public to continue monitoring Puerto Rico’s recovery past the initial media hype, and to support policies focused on providing pathways to opportunity for children, youth and their families. Immediately, it is certainly important to contact members of Congress and ask to support a supplemental appropriation for Puerto Rico’s relief efforts. Past this immediate crisis, it is important to ask Congress should prioritize extending the Child Tax Credit to families of 1 and 2 children. This would provide working low-income families with additional income that could help offset some of the losses of the hurricane, and lift them out of poverty.

There are also a myriad of ways in which the Federal Government can provide needed resources to the island’s children and youth. For example, The Department of Education could also direct discretionary aid and support to ensure that the public school system can be stabilized as soon as possible, in order to provide an anchor for children. A special grant program could be coordinated between the Department of Education and SAMHSA, in order to provide additional school-based mental health supports. The Youth Development Institute of Puerto Rico will be developing a hurricane Maria recovery playbook for agencies at both the Puerto Rico and federal level in which it will present these and other proposals in more detail.

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