Puerto Rico deserves statehood to truly celebrate Independence Day

Puerto Rico deserves statehood to truly celebrate Independence Day
© Getty Images

On Independence Day, 3.7 million Puerto Ricans will be celebrating America’s birthday, but they would also like to be reveling in their own liberation. Twice in the past five years, a majority of Puerto Ricans have voted in favor of becoming a state, rather than remaining a territory or being a sovereign nation. On the campaign, President TrumpDonald John TrumpNFL freezes policy barring players from protesting during anthem McConnell spokesman on Putin visit: 'There is no invitation from Congress' Petition urges University of Virginia not to hire Marc Short MORE said that Puerto Ricans should be able to determine their own political status, and Congress should follow through on whatever the people decided.

There are 36 cosponsors for the bipartisan Puerto Rico Admission Act of 2018, including the chairmen of the House Natural Resources Committee and its Indian and Insular Affairs Subcommittee. The legislation would create a task force to determine which laws needed to be amended or repealed before the territory can become a state, and recommend economic measure that would aid the transition.

ADVERTISEMENT
Granting statehood to Puerto Rico would provide many benefits. The Government Accountability Office found that “statehood could eliminate any risk associated with Puerto Rico’s uncertain political status and any related deterrent to business investment.” It also reported that statehood would increase both federal revenue and spending, but the complete fiscal impact would be determined by the “terms of admission, strategies to promote economic development, and decisions regarding Puerto Rico’s government revenue structure.”

Alaska and Hawaii both generated significant economic growth during their first decade after admission to the union. If the process is done with similar objectives in mind, there could be equal benefits for the people. Puerto Rico has been a territory since 1898, its residents have been U.S. citizens since 1917, and it has governed itself since 1952. The longest wait for any territory to become a state was 50 years for Hawaii.

The record length of time that Puerto Rico has been a territory likely accounts for the astonishing lack of knowledge that its residents are citizens, which in turn has an impact on support outside of the island. A Morning Consult poll, taken just days after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, found that only 54 percent knew that its residents are U.S. citizens. An abysmal 37 percent of those 18 to 29 were aware of this fact, while 64 percent of those 65 and older had the correct information.

When asked whether Puerto Rico should receive federal aid to help rebuild after Hurricane Maria, 80 percent of those surveyed who knew about citizenship said yes, while only 40 percent of those who did not know about citizenship said yes. In other words, the latter group viewed them as foreigners, not fellow citizens.

Many Americans outside of Puerto Rico also are unlikely to be aware that Puerto Ricans do not pay federal income taxes on income earned in Puerto Rico, but they do pay all other federal taxes including Medicare and Social Security taxes. Yet, these U.S. citizens do not receive the same benefits as those of us living in states.

The commonwealth has the lowest participation rate in the labor market in the United States and all territories. A significant reason for this problem is that Puerto Rico has not been able to attract a sufficient quantity or quality of jobs due to its territorial status. Putting Puerto Rico on a path to statehood would not be a bailout. Instead, it would enable the territory to determine its own future, enhance economic growth and opportunity, and reduce the financial burden on all taxpayers.

Recognizing some of the innovative economic opportunities that are arising out of the devastation caused by the hurricanes, the governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, signed legislation that would privatize the electric grid, while telecommunications companies are moving to establish 5G technology as that system is being rebuilt.

Focusing on the path forward, Puerto Rico can and will manage through this crisis and restore growth and opportunity on the island. If Congress does not allow Puerto Rico to start the process toward statehood, the federal government and taxpayers will face an even longer, more difficult, more costly and uncertain process to recovery.

Tom Schatz is president of Citizens Against Government Waste.