Ninety-seven percent of Puerto Ricans voted for statehood in a non-binding referendum Sunday, a result considered flawed given the fact that just 23% of eligible voters cast their ballots.
It was the fifth time during the U.S. territory’s 119-year relationship with the United States that Puerto Ricans voted on their status. A majority of Puerto Ricans chose statehood for the first time in the last referendum in 2012 but Congress ignored the result because of voter confusion. The U.S. acquired Puerto Rico after defeating Spain in the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Puerto Rico hopes a change in status will help it better address $74 billion in debt $49 billion in pension obligations. The island filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. Puerto Rico’s economic distress has forced the closure of schools and reduced availability of social services, as well as accelerating out-migration to the mainland from the island.
Puerto Rico’s economy has been in recession since 2006, according to the General Accounting Office, and its levels of employment and labor force participation are relatively low, compared with those of the U.S. states. In February 2014, Puerto Rico’s general obligation bonds were downgraded to speculative, or non-investment, grade by three ratings agencies.
Statehood would allow Puerto Rico greater access to federal resources. The GAO found in a study in 2010 that the island’s share of federal money would surge by as least one-third for programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Supplemental Security Income.
Also, all federal revenue sources GAO reviewed—individual and corporate income taxes, employment tax, excise tax, estate and gift taxes, and customs duties—could be affected if Puerto Rico became a state.
Congress must still approve the Puerto Rico’s admission to the union, a long shot at best given the fact that the island votes overwhelmingly Democratic and both houses of Congress are controlled by Republicans.
If Puerto Rico joined the union, it would be the first state admitted since Hawaii in 1959. That same year, Alaska joined the union. Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma were admitted in the early part of the 20th century.
The 4.2 million Puerto Ricans living in the mainland U.S. are the second-largest subgroup of the Hispanic population (after Mexican-Americans), according to U.S. Census data, and the population on the mainland surpasses that of Puerto Rico.
New York state has been the main destination for mainland Puerto Ricans, with about 1.2 million people of Puerto Rican descent. There has been a surge in Puerto Rican population in Florida, where the Puerto Rican population has tripled to more than 700,000, drawn by better job prospects.
Historical populations for each state come from the U.S. Census Bureau and are from the decennial census closest to each state’s admission to the Union.