Exploring the Advantages and Disadvantages of Living in a U.S. Territory

Photo of St. Thomas U.S. Territory main

A U.S. territory is an area controlled by the national government that has not become a state. The five populated territories today are: American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the Virgin Islands.  A territory has many benefits such as enjoying the protection (military and rights) of the United States, less federal taxes, and local control. Territories also have disadvantages including second-class voting rights and less power of self-government than enjoyed by states. 

What Is A United States Territory?

The United States is made up of fifty states, each of which has its own powers of self-government and representation in Congress. 

The United States started with thirteen states.  There was also an area under the control of the United States, but not yet made up of states.  This is the territory of the United States.  

Congress has the power to regulate territories more completely than it does states. 

Over time, territorial areas have led to the creation of thirty-seven of our states. Meanwhile, we obtained new territory by such means as purchase and war.  

U.S. Territories in the 21st Century

The United States controls a lot of federal land in the fifty states.  There are also other areas outside of the states. There are five inhabited territories in the United States today:

  • American Samoa
  • Guam
  • Puerto Rico
  • Northern Mariana Islands
  • Virgin Islands 

Over our history, there was a tradition of territories becoming states when enough people reside there. These five have been territories for a long time, in some cases over a hundred years.  Puerto Rico has more people than many states.  But none have become states.  

The Constitution also allows for the creation of a small federal territory to be used as the nation’s capital.  Congress has special power over this area and an amendment eventually gave the people the right to vote for president.  This power was used to establish Washington D.C.

Benefits of Being A U.S. Territory 

[1] Protection

The North Mariana Islands are a collection of Pacific islands that the United States took control over after World War II.  The region has about fifty-five thousand people.  

The United States provides military and financial security to an area that would find it hard to be its own country.  The region turned down a chance of independence in the 1970s.

[2]  Rights

We fought for independence to protect our rights and they are secured by the Constitution.  

People do not need to live in a state to enjoy the rights protected in the United States.  Territorial residents, with the exception of American Samoa, are U.S. citizens.  Citizenship brings special rights (including voting), but even non-citizens in the U.S. have rights.  

We can travel throughout the U.S. states without a passport.  People from territories, such as Puerto Rico, are not “immigrants.”  They are citizens of the U.S. who live in territories.  

[3]  Self-Government

The U.S. government has a lot of power over territories.  Nonetheless, since the Northwest Ordinance in the 1780s, special attention has been given to providing local self-government.  

Territories have their own local legislatures and vote for their own governors.  Puerto Rico has special independence over their own affairs.  Puerto Rico often is treated as a separate region from the United States in international events, such as the World Baseball Classic.  

Territories do not have voting representatives in Congress. Territories have non-voting delegates in Congress, including Stacey Plaskett, who served as an impeachment manager.

[4]  Tax Benefits 

Residence in U.S. territories brings with it certain tax benefits.  You do have to pay certain federal taxes.  But, you often avoid federal income taxes.  

Territorial governments, chosen by local residents, also have their own tax systems. 

Disadvantages of U.S. Territories 

[1]  Second-Class Voting Rights

The Supreme Court in a series of cases known as the Insular Cases in the early 20th Century held that residents of U.S. territories do not necessarily have all the rights of other Americans.  Most rights have been equally protected.  Voting rights are one exception.

Yes, there is some power of self-government.  Nonetheless, the U.S. Constitution sets up a system where the election of the president and voting representation in the U.S. Congress is left to states.  Puerto Rico, with more people than multiple states, does not vote for president.  

When Congress denies certain federal benefits to Puerto Rico without its residents having true congressional representation is that fair?  

[2]  The Oldest Colony? 

Residents of Washington D.C. were recently upset when Congress rejected a criminal reform law passed by their local legislature.  This increased the push for D.C. statehood.

The additional power of the federal government over territories has led to controversy over the years.  Puerto Rico is sometimes known as the “oldest colony” because of U.S. control without full representation in Congress or the ability to vote for president.  

[3]  Cultural Freedom Limited 

American Samoa is a special case because residents are “U.S. nationals” but not U.S. citizens.  This has divided the Samoan people because U.S. citizenship brings with it certain benefits.  

The majority are okay with this policy because Samoans fear becoming full U.S. citizens will deny them the right to go their own way.  The equality of U.S. citizenship has many benefits.  

Nonetheless, it also denies us from totally going our own way in various ways.  The people in U.S. territories have different local traditions from many in the fifty states.  

Native American tribes, for instance, are given certain special powers (such as mixing church and state) that territories do not have.  

(4)  Less Prosperity

The second-class status of territories encourages a dependent colonial-like status that has suppressed development and prosperity.  The response to hurricanes in Puerto Rico in recent years has been much criticized.  Would a state be treated the same?  

The history of decolonization after WWII has been mixed.  Nonetheless, full equality in the company of nations has led to more prosperity.  Why not full equality in the company of states?

Is it Imperialism? 

Disputes over territories, especially regarding slavery, were a major part of our history.  

A permanent collection of territories had a certain uneasy quality of an American empire.  Are we not different from the colonial powers we fought against in 1776?

Puerto Rico’s possible statehood is a heavily debated issue in recent years, especially since there are both advantages and disadvantages to being a territory.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.