The precariousness of childhood

By: Dr. María E. Enchautegui

Economist & Research Director of the Youth Development Institute

The situation of children and youth in Puerto Rico is precarious. This is shown in the Children & Youth Wellbeing Index published by the Youth Development Institute.

When all the indicators (27 in total) are combined to form the Index and Puerto Rico gets compared to the 50 states and the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico obtains a D grade. Moreover, Puerto Rico worsened in almost all indicators, between 2016 and 2017.

The environments in which children develop show deterioration, endangering the wellbeing of children.

In the home environment, children face poverty, dependence on government welfare aids, lack of employment and low salaries of their parents. Although the percentage of families with children whose parents were employed improved, the average income of these families was reduced by about $1,000. In 45% of households with children, aid from the Nutrition Assistance Program gets received. More than half (58%) live below the poverty level, as do 62% of children ages 0 to 5 years.

The school environment is a challenge with more children reporting bullying, fights and absences due to feeling unsafe at school or on the way to school.

In the community environment, insecurity besets young people. In 2017, 42 out of 100,000 died at the ages of 15 and 19 and 17% of young people considered suicide. More than 80% of children live in communities of high poverty. Communities do not seem to offer recreation, exercise and sports alternatives as 30% of children do not perform physical activity.

Solving the precariousness of children in Puerto Rico is not an easy task. It requires determination and leadership. Policymakers still have not decided to grab the bull by the horns when it comes to reducing the poverty of children and youth, although seem to be united when it comes to limiting their rights. We have heard proposals such as the curfew, reducing the minimum wage of young people and even ordering annual cancer tests to enter schools.

Last month, the National Academy of Sciences and Engineering of the United States published a study responding to a direct and concise question asked by Congress: What would it take to reduce child poverty by half in a 10-year period? Canada asked the same question in 2016 and is working toward that goal. England also raised the question in 1998 and managed to reduce child poverty by half before the end of a decade. The panel of researchers from the Academy concluded that a combination of direct subsidies, incentives to work and grants conditioned to income were the most effective ways to achieve this goal. The Academy also concluded that reducing poverty by half is extremely expensive, but more expensive is doing nothing. The costs of child poverty are shown in high costs of health, safety, low schooling and low salaries, accounting for $800 billion to $1.1 trillion annually. Unfortunately, the study focused on the 50 states and the District of Columbia, excluding Puerto Rico, leaving a bad taste among advocacy groups that care for the wellbeing of children in Puerto Rico.

The Childhood & Youth Wellbeing Index and the Academy report remind us that there is a long way to go, but we have to start with the explicit commitment to reduce child poverty because what is at stake is the economic future of Puerto Rico.