Politics of Poverty

As Puerto Ricans struggle to cope, Oxfam raises their voices on Capitol Hill

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In the wake of Hurricane Maria, clean water, food, fuel, electricity, and health care are in desperately short supply and quickly dwindling in Puerto Rico. Millions of American citizens are struggling simply to survive in dire circumstances. (Photo: Santiago Benet-Mari)

While the federal government drags its feet on sending robust and adequate emergency response aid to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, Oxfam steps up to raise the voices of those who are hardest hit – and least represented.

After a series of deadly hurricanes walloped parts of the US this season, millions of people have been struggling to cope in the wake of the storms. As always, the people who have the hardest time recovering are those who were already the most vulnerable – people who face obstacles such as poverty, lack of insurance, disability, or age extremes.

And that’s where Oxfam comes in: we raise the voices and concerns of people who have been marginalized, for any reason.

This year, Hurricanes Harvey (Texas) and Irma (Florida) sent us to Capitol Hill with a delegation of local leaders to advocate for those hit hardest by the storms. However, Congressional staffers gave us a message, too: Puerto Rico needs advocates. Many staffers on Capitol Hill asked whether Oxfam would be speaking out on behalf of the 3.4 million residents of Puerto Rico. They impressed on us that these Americans lack a real voice in Washington, DC. Puerto Rico is represented by a non-voting Resident Commissioner in the House of Representatives, and local leaders have a hard time making the trip to Capitol Hill.

These meetings happened right after Hurricane Maria barreled through the Caribbean, and caused widespread destruction across Puerto Rico. The electrical grid was destroyed, leaving most of the island without power, and over half of the residents without access to potable water. A month later, the situation remains dire and life threatening, particularly for vulnerable populations and those in rural areas.

Oxfam has been working hard to lay out a reasonable and urgent agenda to assist Puerto Rico in their recovery efforts. In office visits to Members of Congress, and a letter to the President, we’ve articulated a clear way forward. (For more details on Congressional asks, refer to our advocacy agenda.)

We call upon the President and Congress to:

  1. Fully fund the response and rebuilding effort.
  2. Remove regulatory and financial barriers to recovery.
  3. Provide debt relief to Puerto Rico.
  4. Prioritize a locally-led response that targets and empowers the most vulnerable.
  5. Ensure that rebuilding programs address climate risks.

When we deliver these advocacy asks, we usually get warm responses, on both sides of the aisle. Members of Congress appreciate our presence on the ground, and on Capitol Hill.

However, while advocacy is vital, we’re not stopping there; Oxfam has taken the unusual step of ramping up our own emergency response efforts on the island. While it’s rare for us to take action around emergencies in wealthier countries, the challenges of the response and the great need compelled us to commit to devoting resources and technical support on the ground to help the relief effort.

We have been assessing the situation and providing technical assistance; and we have begun to disburse grants to partners who are reaching out to deliver services to those who need it most: the vulnerable elderly, households with single parents and disabled children, those in remote rural areas. The needs are many: stoves to boil water, tarps to serve as roofs, food, fuel, diapers—and more.

We are committed to doing our part, but we cannot do it alone.  Policymakers have the opportunity to exhibit resolute leadership and provide appropriate resources so Puerto Rico can build back stronger.

The time and energy that Oxfam has invested in our advocacy capacity pays off time and again. Today, we feel most acutely how vital it is for all of us – especially the vulnerable – to have a trusted and loud voice in the halls of policymakers.

Join us in urging our leaders to fund the emergency response, remove the obstacles, and get help to our fellow Americans.

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