When you read discussions of possible statehood for Puerto Rico, there are some themes you’ll often see: arguments about the meaning of the plebiscite, concerns about linguistic and cultural differences, fears that America can’t handle the geography of 51 stars in a rectangular flag.
One of the most disturbing themes is this one: the U.S. doesn’t want Puerto Rico as a state because Puerto Rico is poor.
It isn’t usually phrased in exactly this way. The focus tends to be on the relatively high unemployment rate or the low per capita income, simple numbers. “Let’s be realistic about Puerto Rico, ” the argument goes. “They have a low per capita income — lower than Mississippi.” This is true. Mississippi is a state, and Puerto Rico has disadvantages in comparison.
It’s not disturbing to notice those differences. It’s reasonable to be aware of the challenges as well of the benefits of bringing Puerto Rico into the fold. The disturbing part is the idea that the United States is only responsible for Puerto Rico if they become a state.
If Puerto Rico were to choose independence, the United States would no longer have any responsibility for its well-being, though the Philippines were given a decade of transition and some financial support. History shows that Puerto Rico would probably suffer economically; while it would be the poorest state, it would be one of the richest nations in that part of the world, and much of that comparative wealth is thanks to Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States.
If Puerto Rico becomes a state, the United States government would, at some point, have to provide the same support for Puerto Rico as for the current 50 states, although there would certainly be a period of transistion. Previous proposals to admit Puerto Rico as state of the United States were structured to be cost neutral. The history of Hawaii and Alaska show that Puerto Rico would then be likely to become an asset to the United States rather than a drain on U.S. resources.
But the United States currently owns Puerto Rico. As a territory of the United States, Puerto Rico cannot make advantageous economic deals with other nations, request aid from other countries, or take most other steps a nation could take to improve its economic position. Puerto Rico cannot insist on receiving benefits from the United States, though it can and does request them. The levels of federal assistance with school lunches, health care, and law enforcement are meager in comparison with the states, and metrics like the number of deaths in Puerto Rican hospitals and the number of children living below the poverty level show the results of those differences. Puerto Rico is in many ways dependent on the United States.
Most of us in the United States and in Puerto Rico know the story of Cinderella, or Cenicienta. A wicked stepmother has three girls living in her home: two daughters, who are well-fed and cossetted and taken to the ball, and Cinderella, who is mistreated and doesn’t get to go to the ball. We all understand that this treatment of Cinderella is wrong. In fact, while people in previous centuries might have though it was normal to treat a stepchild differently from the other children of the household, we no longer have that attitude.
As Cinderella and her stepsisters are all members of the fairy tale household, mainland and Puerto Rican citizens are all citizens of the United States. If Puerto Rico becomes a state, the U.S. government will have to provide the full panoply rights and responsibilities of U.S. citizenship. Are we really prepared to say — in the 21st century — that it is acceptable to treat Puerto Rico like a stepchild? Is this the American Way?
The difference, if Puerto Rico becomes a state, will not be that we will then become responsible for Puerto Rico. It may be more accurate to say that if Puerto Rico becomes a state we will be forced to accept the responsibility we actually now have.