The U.S. government is nearly quadrupling the amount of federal funding Puerto Rico receives to help impoverished families pay their power bills.
Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi says the Department of Health and Human Services will provide nearly $15 million to the commonwealth starting in January, compared with the $4 million it provided this year.
Pierluisi said Thursday that the additional funds will help as many as 500,000 people. Some 250,000 people in the U.S. territory currently receive help under the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
Power bills in Puerto Rico are on average more than twice those in the U.S. mainland.
“This is an important day for residents of Puerto Rico who need assistance paying their electricity bills. With this new funding, the Puerto Rico Department of the Family, which administers LIHEAP, should be able to increase assistance to current program participants and to provide assistance to many additional households,” said Pierluisi.
In a press release, Pierluisi office indicated that Puerto Rico had been treated unequally under LIHEAP, receiving less aid than it would if it were a state instead of a territory.
“According to the law, the percentage annually allocated by HHS is supposed to be determined on the basis of need in the territories. However, since the inception of LIHEAP, HHS has provided exactly 0.135% for the territories each year, just barely above the minimum level authorized by law. As a result, many low-income families in Puerto Rico receive less assistance than similarly-situated families in the 50 states, or no assistance at all,” said Pierluisi.
The increased aid will kick in after another shrinking year for Puerto Rico's economy.
Puerto Rico's debt is having its worst year since 1999, as the economy gets set to enter its eighth year in recession, causing fear that the island would default on its $70 billion public debt. Puerto Rico's unemployment rate hovers at 13.9 percent - the highest compared with any other state.
"Puerto Rico has never been close to not paying its bonds," said Eduardo Bhatia, president of the island's Senate. "We have always honored the debt."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.