SCOTUS to Decide whether Puerto Ricans Must Receive SSI

In United States v. Vaello-Madero the Supreme Court will decide whether Congress violated the constitution by failing to extend Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to Puerto Rico. A Government Accountability Office report predicted that if SSI was extended to Puerto Rico residents in 2011 between 305,000-354,000 would have received the benefit.

SSI is a federal cash benefit program available to low-income individuals who are older than 65, blind, or disabled paid for out of the general treasury.

Jose Luis Vaello-Madero was born in Puerto Rico and resided in New York from 1985-2013. In 2012 he began receiving SSI but when he moved back to Puerto Rico the payments discontinued. The SSI statute only allows “resident[s] of the United States” in the 50 states, DC, and the Northern Mariana Islands to receive SSI.

Vaello-Madero argues that the federal government has violated the equal-protection component of the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause by not extending SSI to residents of Puerto Rico.

Discrimination in “economics and social welfare” must be “rationally related to a legitimate government interest” to be constitutional. The First Circuit rejected both of the reasons the United States offered for excluding Puerto Rico residents from SSI.  

First, the federal government pointed out that Puerto Rico residents don’t generally pay federal income tax. Regardless, the First Circuit noted, Puerto Rico residents have “consistently made [payments to the federal treasury] in higher amounts than taxpayers in at least six states.” These contributions come from taxes on income earned outside Puerto Rico, federal income taxes on federal employees in Puerto Rico, and Social Security, Medicare, and Unemployment Compensation taxes.

Likewise, the fact that Puerto Rico residents don’t pay federal income tax makes no difference in whether they should receive SSI, the First Circuit reasoned, because neither do other SSI recipients. “[A]ny individual eligible for SSI benefits almost by definition earns too little to be paying federal income taxes. 

Second, the federal government argued Puerto Rico residents should be excluded from SSI because of the cost. While the First Circuit acknowledged that cost may be a consideration “to improve the protection afforded to the entire benefited class,” cost can’t be the only factor. Moreover, deference to cost is inapplicable in this case, “where an entire segment of the would-be benefitted class is excluded.”

Finally, according to the First Circuit, while including the Northern Mariana Islands in SII “does not standing alone render the discriminatory treatment of [Puerto Rican residents] irrational,” it does “undermine [the United States’] already weakened arguments.”