George Laws Garcia, Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council, had a conversation with Jeremiah Johnson this week

“Every single time. more voters have supported statehood,” Laws Garcia reported. “Support for statehood has grown.”

Johnson pointed out that the options included on the different ballots made the plebiscites confusing. They’re not directly comparable because they haven’t offered the same choices each time.

None of the Above: The Strange History of Puerto Rico’s Status Votes

“What you have is growth in the statehood movement,” Laws Garcia responded, but he also pointed out that people have been “voting for statehood with their feet.” Having  come to a state or talked with family members who have, people become aware of the benefits of statehood and come to support that option.

The sheer numbers of people leaving the Island proves that something is very wrong with territory status. “If current territory status were wonderful,” he said, “people would be staying. In fact, people would be flocking to Puerto Rico.”

What have been the impacts of the territorial status?

Johnson asked this.

Laws Garcia pointed out that access to healthcare is much better in the states than in Puerto Rico. Doctors are being recruited to hospitals stateside. “Our infrastructure is less developed,” he said, “because we get unequal treatment there.”

Puerto Ricans who are elderly or disabled get less funding in their Social Security checks, even though they pay into the system equally. “We get less nutritional assistance in Puerto Rico,” Laws Garcia Conti need.

“All of that leads to a cumulative underinvestment in the economy in Puerto Rico that frankly limits the capacity for the jurisdiction to compete on an equal playing field with the states and fully develop itself.”

Jeremiah pointed out that Puerto Rico is much better off economically than other Caribbean islands. “Their GDP is much much higher than any of those peer nations,” he said, “but if you think of it in comparison with the states, it’s at or near the bottom.”

“That’s right,” said Laws Garcia, “We are a territory of the United States.” As a territory with limited sovereignty, Puerto Rico has no say in choosing the president and little say in the legislature. Even locally, the unelected PROMESA board can overturn laws passed by the local government.This makes it difficult for Puerto Rico to fulfill its promise economically.

Would being a state be good for the economy?

Johnson wondered whether Puerto Rico would benefit from statehood beyond equal federal funding.

Laws Garcia pointed out that territories like Puerto Rico — and the 37 current states that used to be territories, when they’re territories — are underperforming. Without legislators speaking up for the territory, economic insecurity creates a disincentive for investment.

Each state that was a territory saw enormous economic growth after statehood. Laws Garcia pointed out that Puerto Rico could expect to see the same change.

With equal investment from the federal government unleashing economic growth, plus the increased certainty for investors brought by equal political power, Puerto Rico could expect significant economic improvement. “Statehood would vastly improve the standard of living,” Laws Garcia said.

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