Puerto Rico is home to nearly 175,000 U.S. citizen children aged birth to 4 years old. More than half of these children live below the federal poverty level. Much like in the rest of the United States, young children in Puerto Rico are most likely to live in families that are barely able to meet their basic needs. Early childhood is a critical period of development. However, without access to nutritious food, safe housing, and quality medical care, young children living in poverty can quickly fall behind their more economically advantaged peers.
Regardless of family income, all children in Puerto Rico find themselves in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria—the strongest storm to hit the island in a lifetime. The effects of poverty, combined with the trauma of living through a natural disaster, will not fade away easily: The experiences that Puerto Rico’s young children have now will directly influence their long-term physical, cognitive, and emotional development.
This column describes four critical areas of government support on which many Puerto Rican children depend.
Food assistance and security
Nutritious food is a basic need, providing the fuel that young brains and bodies require to develop. Poor nutrition and hunger are especially devastating to infants and toddlers, often leading to developmental delays in areas like language and motor skills; social and behavioral acuity; and educational advancement.
- Puerto Rico imports 85 percent of its food, making food security tenuous even in the best of circumstances.
- Although, in recent years, Puerto Rico has made efforts to boost food security—increasing agriculture production by 24 percent—Hurricane Maria wiped out the majority of crops overnight.
- In response to Hurricane Maria, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is increasing flexibility for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), which provides nutrition assistance to infants and toddlers. In 2015, 165,042 Puerto Rican women and their children participated in WIC. Threats to WIC jeopardize children’s health; future academic achievement; and long-term health and economic outcomes.
- The U.S. Department of Defense reports that clean water is becoming scarce; 55 percent of Puerto Ricans lack clean drinking water, a week after the storm.
Children need safe and stable housing to thrive. Housing instability and homelessness in early childhood are associated with poorer outcomes in language, literacy, and social-emotional development. Unfortunately, Puerto Rico’s housing stock has been devastated.
- Prior to Hurricane Maria, 31 percent of Puerto Rican children lived in households with a high housing burden—households that spent at least one-third of income on housing. When housing consumes one-third or more of a family’s income, it becomes less likely that the family will be able to meet all of its children’s basic needs, and it increases the threat of eviction.
- Emerging reports paint a grim picture of housing conditions in Puerto Rico after the storm. Photos show entire communities with roofs torn off; news reports profile high rates of homelessness and displacement; and satellite images show widespread power outages.
- Whether due to Hurricane Maria or earlier housing instability, threats to housing are devastating for children’s health. Housing insecurity is associated with poor health, lower weight, and developmental risk among infants and toddlers.
Health and medical care
Regular medical care and developmental screenings help children stay healthy. Unfortunately, severe damage to Puerto Rico’s medical facilities—paired with the federal government’s historical underinvestment in Medicaid—has limited children’s access to the care they need. The situation demands immediate action.
- As of June 2015, almost half of Puerto Rico’s population was enrolled in Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Children depend on this coverage for health screenings and treatment, which will be crucial to hurricane recovery efforts.
High-quality early education can help children develop critical skills like social-emotional regulation and communication, which promote lifelong learning. In post-disaster settings, returning to school can represent a return to order and familiarity. The re-establishment of schools and child care programs—including Early Head Start and Head Start centers—is one of the practices that is most highly endorsed by humanitarian agency leaders with disaster experience.
- As of 2015, 7,900 Puerto Rican children had child care subsides. Yet without homes or centers, these are useless; families won’t be able to return to work without first rebuilding infrastructure.
- Puerto Rico is home to 39 Head Start and 44 Early Head Start programs, which, together, provide quality child care and early education to 35,093. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, these centers will need to be rebuilt.
- In the short term, Congress should provide resources to implement home-based Head Start and Early Head Start programs, which deliver services to children where they are living. This can be a crucial way in which it can expand service. In 2016, only 5 percent of Puerto Rican children under age 3 had access to Early Head Start, and only 46 percent of children ages 3 to 5 had access to Head Start.
- Head Start has a precedent of addressing mental health needs in the face of disaster. In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, the Office of Head Start worked with Head Start and Early Head Start directors in order to identify the mental health needs impacting children, families, and the community.
As days turn into weeks since Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, it is important to remember that delaying aid has serious consequences for young children during a critical developmental period. We know what children need; it is up to Congress and the current administration to take action.
Cristina Novoa is a policy analyst for Early Childhood Policy at the Center for American Progress.