A Grain Of Saul: 6 Reasons Puerto Rico Should Become The 51st State

"The time for Puerto Rico's equality has come."

A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.  

Americans should welcome Puerto Rico as the 51st state, not just because it could be good for Puerto Rico — but because it'd be good for the United States.

On Sunday, the issue got renewed momentum after 97 percent of the Puerto Ricans who showed up at the polls voted for a non-binding referendum for statehood. Unfortunately, that vote came with a significant caveat: just 23 percent of Puerto Ricans voted, many boycotting the election amongst fears it favored statehood.

Still, there are other indications it's something Puerto Ricans might want. In a 2012 vote, 61 percent of Puerto Ricans opted for statehood when three choices — independence; a sovereign, free associated state or statehood — were offered. Currently, Puerto Rico is considered a U.S. commonwealth, which means it has its own constitution and governor but anyone born there is considered a natural-born U.S. citizen.

Stateside, there is some disagreement about whether Puerto Rico should become the 51st state in the U.S. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló is expected to come to Congress in the wake of this vote and advocate for statehood. Most political commentators expect the Republican-led Congress to refuse, citing both the perceived flaws in the referendum and Puerto Rico's financial situation.

That being said, here are six reasons I believe Congress should act, and make Puerto Rico the 51st state of the United States:



1. The people of Puerto Rico want it

Yes, this referendum was flawed. And yes, the real fraction of Puerto Rican citizens in favor of statehood may be much closer to a simple majority than a super-majority, but it's still a majority.

On top of that, there is good reason to believe that if you took into account all the Puerto Ricans living across the United States, support for statehood would increase. Why?

2. There are millions Americans of Puerto Rican descent living stateside

According to Pew, the number of Puerto Ricans living in  is far more than the 3.6 million Puerto Ricans who actually live in Puerto Rico.

The simple fact is that Puerto Ricans are one-foot in one-foot out, operating with limited representation. Puerto Rico's status as a territory means that its residents don't pay federal taxes, vote in presidential elections or get the same kind of funding for health insurance that those in the states do. Their elected member of Congress, Jenniffer González, who is called a "Resident Commissioner," can't vote on legislation. Yet, the U.S. government dictates many of Puerto Rico's defense, trade and infrastructure decisions. 

For what it's worth, Gonzalez is pro-statehood. 

3. Our democracy would benefit from making Puerto Rico a state

I've written a ton about the importance of voter turnout, and how Americans need to be more engaged. Well, as it turns out, Puerto Rico's citizens could help reverse that trend: Puerto Rico normally boasts high voter turnout — about 80 percent.

That percentage is far higher than the estimated 58 percent of Americans who voted in the 2016 election, and it'd be in our country's best interest to welcome a group of politically engaged Americans to elect new members to Congress and participate in our presidential elections

Despite conservative fears that inviting Puerto Ricans to participate in the larger workings of our democracy would tip the scales in the Democratic Party's favor, the truth is Puerto Rico would bring a diverse voting block to the U.S. As Pedro Pierluisi, a former resident commissioner for Puerto Rico, told NPR in 2012, any American who assumes most Puerto Ricans would vote Democrat "don't know Puerto Rico that well. Puerto Rico is predominantly Catholic but a lot of evangelical Christians in Puerto Rico right now. It is conservative on social issues."

4. Economically, Puerto Rico would benefit greatly from a formalized statehood

It's not secret that Puerto Rico is in trouble. It recently declared bankruptcy, has a 45 percent poverty rate, owes $49 billion of pensions it can't pay, and the unemployment rate is around 12.6 percent — almost double that of the rest of the United States.

According to New York Times reporter Frances Robles, statehood advocates argue that "with the income and corporate taxes it would receive as a state, Puerto Rico would not be in its current financial mess."

Becoming a state could mean an additional $20 billion dollars in federal funding, something a Puerto Rican state could use to jumpstart its economy and help its poorest citizens. 

Statehood could also offer a boom in tourism and housing. If Americans felt more connected to Puerto Rico, conventional wisdom says more Americans would travel and invest there, just like they did when Hawaii became a state.

5. Economically, the rest of America could benefit too

Right now, Puerto Rican residents don't pay federal income taxes and companies that operate in Puerto Rico don't pay corporate taxes. Inevitably, becoming the 51st state would change that — and give the U.S. government an influx of taxpayer money. 

Even though many Puerto Ricans wouldn't end up paying federal taxes — just like about 45 percent of low-income Americans already don't — there's other opportunity, too. The aforementioned housing situation could lend itself to Americans who have trouble buying homes elsewhere.

Perhaps nothing has more potential than Puerto Rico's agriculture.

Florida Rep. Darren Soto, the first Floridian of Puerto Rican descent to serve in Congress and a member of the Agriculture Committee, recently wrote for The Hill that "the island is primed for a comeback fueled by small local farmers who enjoy a year-round growing season and can grow a wide variety of premium specialty crops, such as coffee, mangoes, papayas, plantains, melons, cassava, sweet potatoes and yucca, among other crops."

Rep. Soto has long advocated that the United States empower an "agricultural renaissance" in Puerto Rico, and statehood could help enable that. As Soto rightly points out, it was United States lending practices in the early 20th century that largely destroyed the farming middle class in Puerto Rico, and he believes unleashing the full potential of the agriculture industry now would be a perfect way to right those wrongs. Part of his plan, as outlined in his op-ed, is to increase access to loans for small farmers, address trade disparities and open nonsensitive federal and commonwealth lands — statehood could help accomplish all of these goals.

In Florida, the agriculture industry employs more than 2 million people and produces $104 billion dollars a year.

In Puerto Rico — where one could argue the crop diversity and warmer lend itself to more potential — the agriculture industry only makes $808 million a year and accounts for just .8 percent of the country's gross domestic product. If it was a state, a thriving agriculture industry in Puerto Rico could mean cheaper access to those crops for all Americans, and a new industry that could offer employment for anyone living in Puerto Rico.

6. It’d be one of the best states in America, and we’d all fit right in

As someone who has traveled to Puerto Rico on two separate occasions, let me assure you: it'd be one of the best states in America.

I've seen all but a handful of states in the U.S., and Puerto Rico's food, weather, beaches and tourist attractions are superior to almost all of the ones I've spent time in. There's so much to do in Puerto Rico it even prompted a New York Post lifestyle article titled "15 Reasons Why Puerto Rico Should Become Our Next State."

Among those reasons were the long list of world class chefs that hail from Puerto Rico, the natural phenomenon such as the tropical dry forest and the rain forest, the bioluminescent bay (one of my favorite experiences in Puerto Rico), a real Gilligan's Island, an abundance of surf towns and much, much more. 

And, the truth is, Puerto Rico is already a part of America. But it's about time we made it a state  — and welcomed the differences the territory's culture brings along the way. 

Cover photo: Shutterstock / Onur Buyuktezgel

You can follow Isaac Saul on Twitter at @Ike_Saul.