In 1952, Congress approved Puerto Rico’s constitution. In most cases, when Congress approves a territory’s constitution, statehood is the next step. For Puerto Rico, however, the new constitution did not change the relationship between the territory and the United States.
As House Report 105-131, the United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act, puts it,
The approved constitution established the structure for constitutional government in respect of internal affairs without altering Puerto Rico’s fundamental political, social, and economic relationship with the United States and without restricting the authority of Congress under the Territorial Clause to determine the application of Federal law to Puerto Rico, resulting in the present “Commonwealth” structure for local self-government. The Commonwealth remains an unincorporated territory and does not have the status of “free association” with the United States as that status is defined under United States law or international practice.
This is just one of the unambiguous statements of the federal government making it clear that Puerto Rico is a territory now, just as it has been for more than a century. The constitution did not change the Island’s status at all.
But what if it had?
What if Puerto Rico had become a state once the constitution was approved, as most territories have? What would have been different?
First, Puerto Rico would have experienced the same kind of economic boom that Hawaii and Alaska did just a few years later. Both were living in poverty as territories, enriching corporate interests but not the local people. Both became prosperous after statehood, as did the other territories which have become states. This has happened for all the territories which have been admitted as states. There is no reason to think that it would not have happened for Puerto Rico as a state.
Instead, Puerto Rico has a higher poverty level than any of the states.
Second, Puerto Rico would have taken on all the rights and responsibilities of a state. As federal programs like Medicaid and Food Stamps have come into being, Puerto Rico has received less than the states. Largely because of this inequality, Puerto Rico went deeply into debt to support the basic systems of the territory. Infrastructure has not been kept current. Electricity, roads, healthcare services, schools, and water could not be kept up to the level expected in the states.
Tax credits would have been available to individuals in Puerto Rico just as they are in the states. The child tax credit, which currently applies only to families with three or more children in Puerto Rico, would have applied to all children. The Earned Income Tax Credit, currently not applicable to Puerto Rico, would have helped to lift families out of poverty on the Island as it has in the states.
Puerto Rico would have had more options for growth and development, but let’s imagine that the Island went toward manufacturing. Since companies would have come to Puerto Rico for the weather, the workforce, and the quality of life rather than for tax breaks that washed profits through the Island without enriching Puerto Rico, more companies would have come, invested, and stayed. Like other states, Puerto Rico would have maintained agriculture instead of importing 85% of its food, and entrepreneurs would have contributed to a diverse economy. This is based on the experiences of the other states, not on a fantasy like “enhanced commonwealth.”
As incomes rose, Puerto Rico would have sent more tax funds to Washington. With two senators and five members of congress, as well as a greater stake in the national economy, Puerto Rico would have had the same level of influence in Washington as any other state. The population of Puerto Rico would not have fallen drastically — those of states have not done so.
As natural disasters hit Puerto Rico in the 21st century — drought, hurricanes, earthquakes, the coronavirus, and outbreaks of dengue and zika — Puerto Rico would have received the same kind of support as every other state. The U.S. Constitution clearly says that states must all be treated equally.
Territories? No such requirement.
What about now?
We keep hearing that statehood must wait… until the economic crisis is over, until the Island recovers from the hurricanes, until the epidemic has ended. We need statehood now. Before the next crisis. Tell your legislators you want statehood for Puerto Rico. Now.