The Case for Puerto Rican Statehood
Sam Valk, Politics Contributor
The conversation on the future of Puerto Rico has been overshadowed in the past five years. Puerto Rico, on November 6th, 2012, held a non-binding, two-part referendum on their status within the United States. On that day, substantial majorities of voters decided to reject the current status and were in favor of statehood as the alternative. This immediately started talks about the future of Puerto Rico. However, since that time, the talks have quickly died down, at least in the United States as a whole. Even now, as Puerto Rico is in dire financial straits in a way comparable only to Greece and the European Union. Puerto Rican debt is running around $70 billion while Greece is running around $150 billion. The time has come for Puerto Rico to become the 51st US State.
Puerto Rico, as it currently stands, is a federal territorial commonwealth. That essentially means that everyone born there is American and has the rights and obligations of all Americans. Despite this, they do not get federal representation, save for one non-voting member of the US House of Representatives. Having territorial status is not inherently an issue. In fact, it has always been useful as a stepping-stone to prepare for statehood or independence. Every territory with an area over 1,000 miles square the United States has acquired, through whatever means, has attained independence or statehood within 100 years of being acquired. Puerto Rico, however, has been a US possession since 1898 and has had its current status since 1917. This is 120 years of continuous political limbo.
The biggest case usually made against Puerto Rican statehood is the drain in resources they would add to the federal government. Notwithstanding this, the current status of Puerto Rico is now working against US and Puerto Rican fiscal and Constitutional success. Puerto Rico, as already stated, receives no voting representation in the federal government. They are not allowed to vote on fiscal policies that could directly affect them, an example being the federal minimum wage. The territory, with a 46.2% poverty rate today, has more than twice the rate of poverty as the most impoverished state of Mississippi at 22%. Currently, the federal minimum wage is set at $7.25/hour. If almost half of Puerto Rican's are impoverished, how can business owners themselves afford to hire people at $7.25/hr? It is not unreasonable to assume that a substantial amount of the business owners are impoverished themselves, so the current federal law works against them hiring people. This, of course, causes less people to be employed in the territory and causes poverty to increase as less people are earning money. Finally, this causes a tax collection issue that the territory cannot resolve as there is no tax base. Businesses and people alike are fleeing the territory if they can afford to, leaving those too poor to leave behind in a bureaucratic nightmare.
The minimum wage is just one example of federal regulations and power hurting Puerto Rico. If we allow Puerto Rico the chance to be fully represented in the federal government, they would be able to try and push for the interests of the citizens of their state, as the Constitution describes the states' role in the federal government. If they still don't push for financial and tax reforms to help them after achieving statehood, the onus will then be on them and their representatives for creating the issues they will have. Currently, that blame logically must lie solely in the federal government for failing to give all Americans representation in the US government by refusing to even consider Puerto Rican statehood. The current financial crisis in Puerto Rico is looming. The can was kicked down the road in 2016, and the problem will come back soon. This issue is not just a financial issue for the territory either though. This is also a political and constitutional issue.
Politically speaking, the current situation is much like the political circumstances surrounding municipal mergers in most US States, and especially that of the 1970 merger of Marion County and Indianapolis, Indiana into one political jurisdiction known as the Unigov. The smaller, secondary cities in Marion County were not receiving the same superior services given to Indianapolis before that time. When a smaller jurisdiction would use Indy's services, they would of course have to pay a nominal fee on top of the taxes used already for the services. However, the largest burden was having to appeal to multiple governments, whereas the Unigov eliminates the financial and political redundancies that occurred in Marion County. The same can be said for Puerto Rico, if we replace the US with Marion County, Indianapolis with each of the 50 US States, and Puerto Rico as any secondary city within Marion County that was not Indianapolis. Due to the current political setup of territories in the United States, numerous redundancies and extra, hidden costs are allowed to occur to the detriment of the Puerto Rican people. This, in part, is causing the current financial crisis on the island, as they've been squeezed between a rock and a hard place. It is true that we will have to absorb Puerto Rico's debt if they become a state. But if we do not absorb the debt now, it will continue to grow and will cause Puerto Rico's problems to continue to spiral further out of control.
Finally, constitutionally speaking, the current status is unacceptable. The Constitution states "We the People, of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, promote the general welfare, ensure domestic tranquility..." We cannot claim to want to form a more perfect union or promote the general welfare when we start some US citizens off as a lower class all their own, just solely because they were born in the wrong place in America. We have boxed them in as US citizens without the ability to represent themselves. What we are doing to Puerto Rico currently is akin to the English taxing us and infringing on our rights as individuals without any representation of the people being taxed and infringed upon. As well, the current status is an infringement on the 10th Amendment as the people of Puerto Rico do not get the option of "states rights." In order to form a more perfect union, we must allow Puerto Rico and its 3 million US citizens to be a part of said union as a full and equal member. Anything less than that is a continuation of the tragic situation we have placed Puerto Rico in.
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