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Reporting on exclusion of Puerto Ricans from SSI had to pivot fast after Supreme Court decision

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Reporting on exclusion of Puerto Ricans from SSI had to pivot fast after Supreme Court decision

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Photo credit: (Photo by Ricardo Arduengo/AFP via Getty Images)
Photo credit: (Photo by Ricardo Arduengo/AFP via Getty Images)

The political status of Puerto Rico is complicated. Many people believe that the United States citizenship granted to people born in Puerto Rico since 1917 is different — some consider it second class, because Puerto Ricans do not enjoy all the benefits that apply to other U.S. citizens. 

Since they can’t vote in U.S. presidential elections, Puerto Ricans living on the island lack full political power. On the other hand, Puerto Ricans have been called to serve under the U.S. Army in armed conflicts since 1917. In addition, they contribute to the economy and pay taxes, including some federal ones.

The fact is that the United States has excluded Puerto Ricans from a series of benefits. An especially notable one is the Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a social assistance program created in 1972 that is not available to residents of Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories.

Due to the number of people who could benefit from this program, we recently produced an in-depth reporting project to help people understand what many consider an otherwise incomprehensible situation. That’s because there are thousands of people in Puerto Rico in need of receiving this help, many with limited income, living below poverty levels and with complicated health issues.

Our reporting taught us many lessons along the way.

When we began our investigation, one of the most important challenges was that we were working against the clock, since there was an important case regarding SSI and Puerto Rico before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 2017, José Luis Vaello Madero challenged the SSI exclusion for Puerto Ricans living on the island in court. Vaello Madero is a Puerto Rican that had been receiving help from this program since 1985, and continued to do so even when he moved to Puerto Rico in 2013 to care for his sick partner. When the Social Security Administration found out he had moved to Puerto Rico, they sued him to force the return of $28,081 he had received since moving to the island through 2017. The lawsuit was filed by the U.S. Department of Justice. Vaello Madero filed a counterclaim for discrimination, citing the exclusion of SSI to Puerto Ricans living on the island. Both the federal court for the District of Puerto Rico and the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit favored Vaello Madero. On March 1, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case.

That was the status of this issue when in January 2022 we started working on our project “SSI: discrimination against Puerto Rico.” We began by researching what types of economic assistance existed in Puerto Rico that could replace SSI. We wanted to make a comparison between the help available and the benefits offered by SSI, if it were to be applied on the island, and to create an up-to-date estimate of who would be eligible for this program. We sought out experts in biostatistics and demography, who were key because they helped us give our audience an idea of ​​the size of the issue. 

We knew we had to work quickly on our reporting, and although we had set target publication dates, breaking news of the Vaello Madero Case could happen at any point. Experts on the subject had told us that the Supreme Court judges would hear Vaello Madero's case on or before June 30, 2022.

Our project was well advanced when the Supreme Court issued the decision in the Vaello Madero case much earlier than expected, on April 21. With an 8-1 decision, the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court reiterated that the Territorial Clause in the federal Constitution gives Congress the power to extend or not a social welfare program, without the obligation to do so. The fact that the Supreme Court issued its decision so early posed additional challenges for us, as numerous media outlets and journalists became interested in the “breaking news” about SSI, an issue that we had been working on since January. Discussion of the case controversy had been a major angle in many of the interviews we had done. That forced us to ask ourselves, “Now what?”

Thankfully, we had the help of our project editor Marisa Kwiatkowski, who welcomed the ideas we put forward and gave us reassurance that this story continued to be very pertinent for the readers. We bet on the depth and investigative work of this special series, since we had revealing data and details regarding the exclusion of Puerto Rico from the SSI, beyond the decision of the Supreme Court. We decided to keep the original publication date we had set on. One of our most important achievements was that we had access to data that revealed the extremely reduced assistance that had been assigned to adults over 65 years of age or older and people with disabilities in Puerto Rico for the past 10 years through a government program (the Temporary Assistance Program for Needy Families or TANF), administered by the Department of the Family of Puerto Rico. 

A key factor in our project was the testimonies we were able to interview. People who might be eligible for SSI opened their homes to us to talk about their challenges and struggles, as well as how they manage their health with the few supports available. We sought to put faces to the situation, to talk to people, to humanize the data. In our case, several nonprofit organizations helped us identify people to speak to. The stories with the testimonials were among the most read in the series.

Another lesson we learned is the importance of maintaining an open channel of communication with the interviewees who are part of the project. Along the way, new findings or events may change the angle of the story or may require new questions. That happened to us and led us to have to call our sources and subjects on several occasions. Among the interviewees, there was an expectation that the Supreme Court would not decide as it finally did, so in the initial interviews there were few answers about what would happen or what would be done if that decision was not favorable to the residents of Puerto Rico and other territories. The fact that the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in April, earlier than expected, forced us to contact several people again to expand on where the fight for the inclusion of Puerto Rico and other territories in the SSI program should be focused. 

Once the Supreme Court decided the case in April, our project focused on two new angles. One revolved around the Supreme Court’s determination that the extension of SSI to residents of Puerto Rico and other territories is in the hands of the U.S. Congress. There are currently three congressional measures in Congress proposing such an extension, but all remain stalled.

Our project editor, Marisa Kwiatkowski, suggested we assess the atmosphere in Congress on extending SSI to Puerto Ricans living on the island. So, we decided to send emails to all the members of the U.S. Senate asking if they were in favor of the extension and if they would support such a measure. Although we received few responses, it was essential for us to make that effort, seeking as many responses as possible and obtaining a record of those who did not respond. This seems to us an important lesson: Although we do not always get all the answers we need, the investigative work is incomplete if we do not make the greatest effort to cover all the possible angles.

The decision of the Supreme Court, on the other hand, awakened a legal action that had been paralyzed since 2020, waiting to be ratified as a class action lawsuit before the federal court. In that lawsuit a group of residents of Puerto Rico who meet the requirements to receive SSI claim the right to receive it, like other U.S. citizens in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Many times, an investigative project remains unfinished because the controversy remains ongoing. That is why we urge all journalists who have worked on projects like this to remain vigilant on the issue and give it the follow-up it deserves. Perhaps the extension of SSI to Puerto Ricans living in Puerto Rico will happen in a year, maybe two, maybe never. Meanwhile, our commitment is to watch over the story is like that of a hawk.

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