A Massive Crisis is Coming in Puerto Rico and No One is Talking About It

October 23rd 2015

Thor Benson

Puerto Rico is not a state, but it's still part of the United States, and it's in big trouble. The U.S. commonwealth is facing a financial meltdown and possibly much worse.

"I can tell you with total confidence that Puerto Rico's fiscal crisis is escalating and is very real, and that without federal action it could easily become a humanitarian crisis as well," Antonio Weiss, a U.S. Treasury Secretary counselor, said at a Senate committee hearing on Thursday.

Weiss said that the "economic security and well-being of 3.5 million Americans living in the commonwealth is at stake." Puerto Rico is over $72 billion in debt, and the island has a poverty rate around 45 percent. 

San Juan Puerto Rico street

It is believed Puerto Rico will have to choose between funding essential programs or paying creditors before the year is over, unless actions are taken. Basic services like police, firefighters, and healthcare could have to shut down, according to Puerto Rico Governor Alejandro Garcia-Padilla. 

Over 84,000 people left Puerto Rico to move to the 50 states in 2014, often citing little economic opportunity and a high crime rate. Many businesses have left the island as well. The agriculture on the island has also been slammed by a severe drought that has forced the government to ration water.

Puerto rico debt

In order for Puerto Rico to be saved from its crushing debt, Weiss said that Congress has to allow the island to file for bankruptcy and expand its Medicaid program and tax credits. The Treasury also wants to create a financial control board. These steps would not be considered a "bailout," Weiss said. "Allowing Puerto Rico to resolve its liabilities under the supervision of a bankruptcy court involves no federal financial assistance whatsoever. Instead, bankruptcy requires shared sacrifice from both Puerto Rico and its creditors."

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called on the Treasury Department to find a way to help the island without relying upon a dysfunctional Congress. She also invoked the department's treatment of banks that are in trouble.

“I urge Treasury to be just as creative in coming up with solutions for Puerto Rico as it was when the big banks called for help,” she said. “Treasury stretched the limits of its authority to make sure that the banks stayed afloat, it helped broker deals between banks, it applied pressure to get parties to accept deals they may not have liked very much.”

Updated: An earlier version of this piece said that Puerto Rico lost population to the United States. That's incorrect as Puerto Rico is part of the United States. It now reads that Puerto Rico has lost population to the 50 states.