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Should Puerto Rico become the 51st state?

By Talia Klein Perez
 Photo by Ana Toledo on Unsplash
*Updated 2024
Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory in 1898 as a result of the Spanish-American War, and thanks to the Jones Act of 1917, babies born in Puerto Rico are automatically granted U.S. citizenship. Yet despite their citizenship, which enables them to serve in the American Army, Puerto Ricans are limited in the benefits they receive as U.S. citizens. They receive limited federal funding and are unable to vote in U.S. federal elections. It’s long been asked why Puerto Rico shouldn’t become a U.S. state. This question becomes increasingly poignant following natural disasters and the continual bipartisan disagreements that arise over how much relief funding should be allocated to the territory.
Here are three reasons why Puerto Rico should become the 51st U.S. state and three reasons why it shouldn’t.


Three Reasons Puerto Rico Should Become the 51st State


Puerto Ricans would live better, on their own turf, a win-win for all

The current situation is holding Puerto Ricans back. As of 2023, Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate rested at almost 6%.  Before Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, it was estimated that roughly 46% of Puerto Ricans were living below the poverty line; Fast forward to 2021 when 56% of children still lived a level below the poverty line. Those leaving (mostly for mainland U.S.) over the past decade are in search of better employment opportunities.


In becoming a U.S. state, Puerto Ricans could enjoy both the benefits associated with statehood and the tools needed to develop their own industry and workforce on the island. Statehood would increase local job opportunities, bring about income creation benefits and enable locals to receive better health care, which they are already paying for, but do not currently benefit from. What’s more, with Puerto Ricans enjoying statehood benefits from the comfort of their own homes, they would be able to pursue – and live – the American Dream in their own country.


Puerto Ricans deserve a say in the laws that affect them

If, according to American history, “all men are equal in the eyes of the law,” then why don’t Puerto Ricans have equal say in the laws they must uphold? The U.S. currently controls Puerto Rico’s external affairs and federal regulations, yet Puerto Ricans are ineligible to vote in the U.S. presidential elections and have only one non-voting representative in the House. With more than  three million citizens living in Puerto Rico, U.S. statehood would enable Puerto Ricans to be represented by two Senators. They would also be allowed to vote in U.S. federal elections and on issues, bills and reforms that affect them.


The U.S. would be able to fight tax evasion more effectively

The United States does not impose any federal income tax on U.S. citizens who are residents of the island and profit from Puerto Rican sources. Adding Puerto Rico to the U.S. state register would require these citizens residing and working in Puerto Rico to pay federal income taxes, significantly boosting the Federal Reserve’s annual revenues. This would also mean that American companies would no longer be able to move their businesses offshore to Puerto Rico to evade taxes, a current and significant problem in the U.S. Making Puerto Rico a state would limit accessible corporate corruption channels significantly. It might also make it easier to oversee and/or control how U.S. government funds are actually being utilized there and could prevent local government corruption.


Three Reasons Puerto Rico Should Not Become a U.S. State


Many Puerto Ricans don’t really want statehood

Despite the pro-statehood vote in the November 2020 referendum, Puerto Ricans have to wait indefinitely for Congress to actually do anything about it. The fact that the Puerto Rico Status Act was reintroduced in April 2023 was a good sign, but bureaucracy and bipartisan politics have stalled progress. Meanwhile, many citizens are concerned about their rights and independence as a U.S. state. They do not want to lose their unique cultural heritage and Spanish language, with more in common with Latin America than the U.S. Puerto Ricans are also concerned that they will lose their international standings, including their recognition as an individual Olympic team or participant in world pageants and competitions if they become a U.S. state.


The U.S. would inherit Puerto Rico’s debt

The Commonwealth filed for bankruptcy in May 2017 and was in an extended process of reaching a deal with creditors. However, in 2022, they officially exited bankruptcy following the largest public debt restructuring in US history. Since Puerto Rico is not currently a U.S. state, it was unable to access Chapter 9 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, when it fell on financial hardship. What’s more, even if Puerto Rico could access these rights, at that time, he island’s $49 billion of unfunded pension liabilities and $74 billion debt, held by the territory’s government as well as by local public corporations, was so great that they could only cover one-third of the accrued debt. If granted statehood, the U.S. would have inherited this debt. The question is, can the U.S. cope with the challenges that making Puerto Rico a state would impose, or would America (and its national treasury) drown in the process?


The aftermath of Hurricane Maria brings up another serious aspect to consider. If Puerto Rico becomes a U.S. state, it would require a lot of money and resources from FEMA every time a natural disaster occurs. Due to hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Florence, FEMA is already stretched too thin, and several communities within the U.S. are still awaiting assistance. Adding Puerto Rico to the mix would cause much-needed federal funding to be directed away from other U.S. states, at a time where natural disasters are on the rise in America.


Forget statehood, Puerto Rico should be fully independent

Puerto Rico should not be the 51st U.S. state but, rather, a fully independent country. As already discussed, because Puerto Rico is a U.S. colony, it is dependent on and constrained by U.S. federal regulations and laws. Transitioning into independence would let Puerto Rico address its debt crisis on its own terms and grant its inhabitants the right to self-determination. Doing so would give more power to the people, as they would be able to hold accountable elected representatives at all levels of government. This constant state of limbo is eroding Puerto Rico’s ability to stand on its own feet, as many other nations have successfully done.


The Bottom LinePuerto Rico becoming a U.S state could potentially provide an impoverished island with a fighting chance at equality, but at hefty costs to local industry and U.S. funds. Do you think Puerto Rico should become America’s 51st state?

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