Normative Narratives

Q & A Friday: Should Puerto Rico Become the 51st State?


Today’s question comes from Yshak from New Rochelle, NY:

Q: Should Puerto Rico become the 51st state? What are the pros and cons of statehood?

An interesting question Yshak, first some background information. Puerto Rico is currently a territorial commonwealth of the United States. Puerto Rico receives military defense and federal aid from the U.S. government. Puerto Rico does not, however, have an official say in U.S. political matters.

The most popular option for Puerto Rican’s living in the U.S. is to remain a territorial commonwealth (69.4% support this). As one man in San Juan said, “I believe we should stay the way we are. It’s worked for about 50 years already. We get the best of both worlds.” This reminds me of the old saying “if it aint broke, don’t fix it” Puerto Rico currently receives $4,200 per capita in federal expenditure (about 25% of GDP per capita!), while paying only $888 per capita. As a territorial commonwealth, Puerto Rico receives many of the benefits of statehood, without many of the costs (most notably, income tax).

There are still many pros to statehood, both political and economic. Politically, with a population around 4 million people, statehood would grant Puerto Rico 7 house representatives and 2 senators, totaling a very politically relevant 9 Electoral College votes.

Economically, statehood would include Puerto Rico in all U.S. trade agreements (NAFTA for example), which could greatly increase export revenues. Also, with a per capita income of around $16,000, Puerto Rico would immediately become one of the poorest states, meaning even more Federal benefits (with minimal additional costs, as $16,000 is barely above the taxable income threshold once standard deductions are accounted for).

So what are the cons of statehood? Why don’t more people support it? First off, many first generation Puerto Rican-Americans do support statehood (57.4%). The main argument against statehood is that Puerto Rico will lose its unique cultural identity. It is understandable to be concerned, as the U.S. dwarfs P.R. in size, population, and international influence in basically every category. However, this fear is unfounded. The U.S. as a country is one of the strongest proponents of individualism and freedom of speech. There are many distinctly regional identities within the United States, and there is no reason to believe that the Puerto Rican identity would be lost (unless it is abandoned by its people, which it would not be).

Some people want complete independence, after 400+ years of Spanish and then American rule, this is somewhat understandable. However, this is only a small group of people (typically older, liberal Puerto Ricans); these people are not considering the economic realities of independence. From a modernization standpoint, independence makes little sense.

It is also not just up to Puerto Rican’s whether they want to become a state or not. It would also have to draft a state constitution and pass a vote through U.S. congress, which in today’s political reality is far from a sure thing. The G.O.P has apparently decided to become friendlier to “Latino” voters after the 2012 presidential election, so perhaps it would pass a vote, but only time will tell.


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