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Supreme Court to Decide Whether Puerto Ricans Qualify for Federal Benefit

FILE - A woman and a senior citizen embrace as they walk out of a priority COVID-19 vaccination program for the elderly, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Feb. 8, 2021.

The U.S. Supreme Court announced Monday it will consider the constitutionality of excluding those living in Puerto Rico from a federal retirement benefit known as Supplemental Social Security Income.

If the highest court rules in favor of the U.S. territory, elderly Puerto Ricans, as well as those who have a disability, will join the country’s 50 states, the District of Columbia and the Northern Mariana Islands in benefiting from the program.

The Supreme Court will hear an appeal of a lower court ruling that established that Puerto Ricans on the island should have the same access to SSI as Americans in the mainland. The appeal was filed by the former Trump administration.

The decision to exclude Puerto Rico was made by Congress when it enacted SSI in 1972. Despite being eligible for a different program called Aid to the Aged, Blind and Disabled, Puerto Ricans do not have access to as much federal funding as SSI allows.

In August, a federal judge ruled that it was “discriminatory” to deny Puerto Ricans on the island access to federal welfare programs.

“The federal safety net is flimsier and more porous in Puerto Rico than in the rest of the nation,” Judge William G. Young wrote. “To be blunt, the federal government discriminates against Americans who live in Puerto Rico.”

Other U.S. territories, such as Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands, are also seeking to be included in the program.