Puerto Ricans are excluded from many benefits of statehood, including voting in federal elections. Statehood would finally give Puerto Ricans a voice in decisions that already affect them.
On April 21st 2022, the Supreme Court ruled that US citizens in Puerto Rico, a territory of the United States, should be excluded from receiving federal disability benefits. The reasoning was that Puerto Ricans do not pay most federal taxes to the US government. The only judge to dissent was Sonia Sotomayor, who has Puerto Rican ancestry. How is it that despite having a Puerto Rican Supreme Court justice, Puerto Ricans still do not have proper representation in Congress? Why are they even denied the ability to vote in presidential elections? The answer lies in Puerto Rico’s status as a territory of the United States.
Puerto Rico came into US possession in the aftermath of the Spanish American War when the Treaty of Paris was signed in December of 1898, ceding Spanish colonies, including Puerto Rico, to the United States. Although many reforms and pushes for statehood and greater autonomy within Puerto Rico occurred since then, these efforts have proven unsuccessful. This was mainly driven by the reluctance of some Puerto Ricans to integrate into the United States, as the island has widely developed a distinct culture from the mainland United States. Additionally, mainland Americans were reluctant to do the same, as for many years, they did not consider Puerto Ricans to be white enough to properly integrate into American society.
Another factor is the ongoing debate within Puerto Rico between those that want independence, those that want statehood, and those that want to remain a commonwealth. According to the most recent statehood referendum in 2020, where 54.72% of Puerto Rican voters participated, a narrow plurality (52.52%) of voters voted for statehood. This shows that even after a century of American rule without representation, the issue of becoming the 51st US state is still very contested.
The current situation of Puerto Rico is dire. The government of Puerto Rico filed for bankruptcy in 2017, mostly due to a flux of migration to the mainland United States, an unsustainable amount of borrowing, and unemployment. This, as well as the destruction of Hurricane Maria in 2018 and the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, has contributed to the island’s 43.4% poverty rate. Worse yet, the island lacks much of the infrastructure to get these people out of poverty since it is difficult to get supplies from the mainland United States to Puerto Rico. 64.3% of Puerto Ricans have internet access. In the mainland US, that figure is 85%.
Due to these fundamental flaws affecting Puerto Rico, independence is far off. Even if Puerto Rico had a successful bid for independence, it would largely be dependent on the United States for everything from infrastructure to defense. Additionally, over half of all Puerto Rico’s imports come from the United States, so Puerto Rico would rely on the United States for its survival independent or not. Lastly, since 5.6 million Puerto Ricans live in the United States compared with 3.1 million in Puerto Rico, there also exists a demographic problem which is only getting worse every year.
The current commonwealth system is not sustainable, having come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. The issue of statehood for Puerto Rico is supported by both Democrats and Republicans, although some Republicans are worried about this move giving Democrats an electoral advantage. The economic burden of funding Puerto Rican infrastructure and federal programs necessary for keeping its citizens secure is also a major point of contention among the two parties.
Despite many fears of dragging the rest of the United States down, statehood would greatly improve the lives of Puerto Ricans on the island. They would finally have representation in Congress and would even be able to vote in presidential elections. The United States would also be funding infrastructure and programs like SNAP, Medicare and Medicaid, Social Security, and federal disability benefits. This would also mean an increase in funding for the island’s critically underfunded and corrupt police force, which has contributed to a crime rate 47% higher than the mainland United States.
Puerto Rico has a lot to gain from statehood. It would improve the lives of millions of Puerto Ricans on the island by enfranchising them and giving them a proper say in governing their island. The current system in Puerto Rico is unsustainable and broken. Inaction on the part of the federal government will eventually lead to the commonwealth’s collapse unless Congress makes a conscious effort to admit Puerto Rico as a proper state. It might not make much of a difference for the average mainland American, but it would mean the world to the average citizen of Puerto Rico.