Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, is set to vote again on becoming the 51st state. This will be the first time since the 2012 vote, which despite having a 60% majority in favor of statehood, did not pass.
Due to the almost ten year recession that has been affecting the country, Puerto Rico has watched roughly 6% of its population move to the mainland United States in the last three years, as people from Puerto Rico are also U.S. citizens. Though they are citizens, due to Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status, they cannot vote and have no representatives in the electoral college, effectively denying them a meaningful choice in the president.
Though they cannot vote in mainland U.S. elections, they do participate in elections for a governor. However, because they are still U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans are also subject to the draft and many federal taxes, though the federal income tax is waived in most cases. Puerto Ricans cannot receive SSI like citizens in the mainland U.S. and receive a smaller portion of Medicaid as well.
Their financial crisis is one of the largest motivators for those in favor of statehood, as they have roughly $123 billion dollars in debt, a median income of less than $20,000, and a 12.4% unemployment rate. This is over two times the average unemployment rate in the mainland United States. Roughly 45% of Puerto Rican people live in poverty. In addition, schools have been closing due to lack of funding, and while some rural schools are kept open because of a lack of transportation, others have closed anyway, leaving many children with increased barriers to education. To further complicate the issue, nearly 60% of children live in poverty and many of their families do not own cars.
To cope with the debt, not only have schools suffered numerous budget cuts, but their health care system has as well. Puerto Rico, unlike U.S. states, is not protected by U.S. bankruptcy code and their proposal for a solution was shot down in favor of PROMESA, a law enacted by the mainland U.S. in order to help resolve their debt. PROMESA appointed seven individuals to oversee the decisions of the Puerto Rican government while giving them the power to overrule them.
While many Puerto Ricans favor statehood, other supporters, such as those in favor of being an independent nation or remaining a commonwealth, have valid concerns regarding the prospect of becoming the 51st state. One concern is the loss of culture, especially under the current U.S. government, which has recently removed the Spanish version of the White House’s website. Very few members of the current government are in favor of Puerto Rico becoming a state as well, creating an even more difficult situation for those desiring statehood.
Puerto Rico has also faced barriers to statehood that Alaska and Hawaii did not, such as it remains an “unincorporated” territory, while Alaska and Hawaii were “incorporated,” meaning that the full extent of U.S. law applies, including the federal income tax, compulsory draft, and the receipt of SSI benefits. Supporters of independence note that these barriers decrease the likelihood of becoming a state, so they push to allow Puerto Rico to govern its own decisions, especially so it can reach out to other financial institutions in order to resolve its debt instead of forfeiting power to the mainland U.S.
With the vote taking place this weekend, Puerto Ricans have another chance to make this monumental decision regarding the status of their home. With the current government sentiment, financial climate, and concerns of losing their culture, this decision will greatly affect the future of the territory.