Why should Puerto Rico be a state?

For the life of me I can't see why Puerto Rico should become a state. Very likely I am wrong. But we have 50 lively states now including two noncontiguous areas, Alaska and Hawaii, and if we included Spanish Puerto Rico it might be interpreted as meaning that we were seeking to absorb various other Hispanic areas.

President Reagan has just formally repeated that he supports Puerto Rican statehood if the islanders endorse it by a referendum. On Jan. 12 he issued a formal statement noting that he had supported statehood two years ago if a majority of the 3.1 million people voted for it in a democratic election, and repeated the pledge.

''Today I reaffirm that support,'' he said, ''still confident in my belief that statehood would benefit both the people of Puerto Rico and their fellow American citizens in the 50 states.'' He said that the island plays a major role in his Caribbean policy and ''its strong tradition of democracy provides leadership and stability in that area.''

The thrust of Mr. Reagan's remarks seems to be that the initiative for statehood, and the decision on joining the United States, depends on Puerto Ricans rather than mainlanders. This has always seemed odd to me. Suppose the people of Gibraltar should vote to join the British Isles as part of their domestic government; wouldn't this be regarded as rather curious? We don't consider very often just what an American state is. Take one instance, the treaty-making authority under the Constitution. A treaty can be rejected, you remember, if it doesn't get a vote of two-thirds of the Senate. (The House doesn't vote.) If Puerto Rico became a state it would have just as much say in accepting or rejecting treaties as New York, or California; each with two votes.

This is only a small facet of the matter. Presidents have been divided on Puerto Rican statehood. President Ford advocated it. President Carter was opposed. One group in Puerto Rico wants outright independence. It would be odd to have an independence movement agitating in one of the proposed 51 American states.

Meanwhile the Reagan budget cuts are deeply affecting Puerto Rico. The food stamp program is used by 60 percent of the people and provides about 32 percent of the net personal income. Mr. Reagan's economies will cut these back, perhaps statehood is apparently popular, or at least it attracts little attention at home. But the President's good will doesn't help fill the gap in the Puerto Rican economy. The other day Puerto Rico lost 22,000 openings when the federal job-training program was cut; its unemployment rate reportedly jumped 3.5 percentage points in three months to 20 percent. Cuts in food stamps have hurt the island more than any other part of the country.

The London Economist has been trying to define Puerto Rico's status for its readers. It is not exactly part of the US, it says; it is a dependency with commonwealth status, paying no federal income taxes and accepting in exchange that it has no vote in mainland presidential or congressional elections.

Very odd. There is one business element that the relationship evidently benefits. An advertisement in the Wall Street Journal in October 1949 asks in large type, ''Where in the USA can a business earn a million dollars profit and pay only $26,115 in income tax?'' It was inserted by the Puerto Rico Economic Development Administration.

The relationship between Puerto Rico and mainland is an odd one; Mr. Reagan's statement does not make it any clearer.

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