In the wake of Donald Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign announcement and growing concerns over Chinese spy balloons, President Joe Biden’s State of the Union Address at the beginning of February came at a tumultuous time in federal politics. Facing an unruly Republican caucus, Biden outlined his policy goals for the remainder of his term on topics such as the economy, foreign affairs, and immigration. Although these proposals will have major implications for the US territories, Biden only mentioned the territories once in passing during his 73-minute address. Thus, the State of the Union reflects the current political status of the territories: profoundly impacted by the whims of the federal government yet completely unrepresented in the national conversation.
Biden’s sole reference to the territories came during his discussion on climate change. Regarding environmental strategies, he triumphantly proclaimed, “In addition to emergency recovery from Puerto Rico to Florida to Idaho, we’re rebuilding for the long term.” As part of this long-term rebuilding plan, Biden declared his intention to create 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations across the US. To achieve this goal, the Biden Administration plans to launch a Charging and Fueling Infrastructure discretionary grant program to invest $700 million in EV infrastructure in the territories and elsewhere. This will build on prior initiatives to develop EV infrastructure in the territories; for example, the deployment of off-grid EV chargers in Puerto Rico last November after Hurricane Fiona devastated the territory’s electrical grid.
Healthcare was another important issue that Biden addressed in his speech. Notably, he proposed to reform Medicare by limiting costs to $2,000 a year, with pharmaceutical companies paying back any excess charges to the US government. This shift will be particularly significant in the territories where government healthcare services are egregiously underfunded. Notably, Medicare rebates in Puerto Rico decreased by $75.11 after the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, compared to a mere $2.05 in the mainland US. In addition, risk-standardized benchmarks for health insurance are 33% lower in the territories, which anticipate a 65% spending increase for Medicaid coverage after the devastating Hurricane Fiona. These systemic issues further illustrate the importance of Biden’s efforts to improve medical affordability.
Related to healthcare reform was Biden’s urge during the State of the Union to codify abortion rights nationally. Expressing his commitment to veto any federal abortion bans, Biden’s efforts to preserve reproductive rights will inevitably implicate the territories. Although Puerto Rico legalizes abortion, American Samoa prohibits the medical practice unless the pregnant woman’s life is threatened. Once again, national debates on abortion will affect reproductive healthcare policies for millions of women living in the territories.
In his address to Congress, Biden also recommended expanding federal pell grant resources to alleviate the costs of higher education. Improving access to these grants in the territories is especially crucial, as a mere 21.4% of Puerto Rico’s adult population possess college degrees, and an even lower 8.2% have graduate credentials.
Beyond education, Biden also spoke on workers’ rights during the State of the Union. Specifically, he called for Congress to approve the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. The PRO Act would entail an expansion of fair labor standards to protect secondary strikes and whistleblower activity by employees. These efforts to improve workers’ rights are essential in the territories, as Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands currently do not have employee rights programs approved by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Biden hopes that the PRO Act would rectify these issues and empower employees to speak out against occupational safety hazards in the territories. Further, this legislation would come at an important time for the territories: last year, Puerto Rican union workers led a public strike against austerity measures from the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act. Ultimately, while Biden’s focus may be on national worker’s rights, his proposals will significantly impact labor relations in the territories.