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"Conference Report,"

by Denise Rivera Portis (July/August 2001) is a report of a conference on welfare reform in Puerto Rico and preparation for reauthorization sponsored by the Center for New Economy, PR; the National Puerto Rican Coalition; the National Council of La Raza, PR; and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.July/August 2001 issue of Poverty & Race

“Welfare Reform in Puerto Rico: Assessing Implementation and Preparing for Reauthorization,” was a June 1, 2001 conference sponsored by the Center for the New Economy, Puerto Rico; the National Council of La Raza, Puerto Rico; the National Puerto Rican Coalition; and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. Held in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, the conference offered an overview of welfare reform; research updates regarding the status of welfare implementation in Puerto Rico; and opportunities to discuss and strategize legislative agendas.

Many minority advocates are presently preparing for the reauthorization of the welfare reform law in 2002 and are therefore assessing current welfare implementation. Little attention has been given to the impact of welfare reform on Puerto Ricans in the continental U.S. and the island. The forum organizers brought together researchers, advocates, community organizations and government agencies. The goal was to outline an agenda addressing specific issues faced by low-income Puerto Rican families.

The needs and issues of Latinos are distinct from those of others on the welfare rolls. Some of the main differences are: language services, immigration status and eligibility, elements of “work first” (e.g., the lack of education and skills of many of the Latino women on the rolls; various cultural issues, such as the acceptance of leaving children in the care of strangers).

The economic crisis in Puerto Rico at the end of the 1970s and the early1980s contributed to the adoption of federal assistance programs offered at the time, especially food stamps, which are still widely used today. Unemployment is a fundamental problem in Puerto Rico. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act brought many changes for Puerto Rico, including “welfare to work” and termination of benefits after six months.
According to the 1990 Census (the most recent source), approximately 60,000 families are on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families in Puerto Rico, 95% headed by single mothers.
The marked increase over the last ten years in female-headed families and poverty among Puerto Ricans is one of the biggest issues facing the island. More than two-thirds of women-headed households live below the poverty line in Puerto Rico. Many of these women do not have a high school diploma and have never worked outside of the home. One of the many problems with the new laws is that women are being told that they are no longer eligible for assistance and are not being given the tools they need to be independent. One strong recommendation given at the conference was to increase training, especially vocational training, such as licensing them as child care specialists and housekeepers, which can introduce these women into the workforce more quickly.

During the final part of the conference, the comment was made that the day had been “like drinking water from a fire hose,” regarding the vast amount of information. The forum was only a beginning. There is great need for more discussion on this topic. Much needs to be researched; issues need to be defined; relevant organizations need to be recognized and involved. Much must be done in a short time. Researchers, advocates and government agencies need to unite, identify the issues and make the necessary recommendations in order to advocate for the needs of Latino families during the upcoming welfare reauthorization.

For more information or a copy of the conference agenda and attendees, please email Denise Rivera Portis at dportis@prrac.org.
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