A new poll of 2,200 adults by Morning Consult found that only 54 percent of Americans know that people born in Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, are U.S. citizens. (Because Puerto Rico is not a state, they do not vote in presidential elections, but they send one nonvoting representative to Congress.)
This finding varied significantly by age and education. Only 37 percent of people ages 18 to 29 know people born in Puerto Rico are citizens, compared with 64 percent of those 65 or older. Similarly, 47 percent of Americans without a college degree know Puerto Ricans are Americans, compared with 72 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree and 66 percent of those with a postgraduate education.
Inaccurate beliefs on this question matter, because Americans often support cuts to foreign aid when asked to evaluate spending priorities. In our poll, support for additional aid was strongly associated with knowledge of the citizenship status of Puerto Ricans. More than 8 in 10 Americans who know Puerto Ricans are citizens support aid, compared with only 4 in 10 of those who do not.
Being informed about the citizenship status of Puerto Ricans also modestly increases support for aid. Over all, 64 percent of Americans in the poll who were given no additional information said that Puerto Rico should receive additional government aid to help rebuild the territory, while 14 percent said it was not necessary and 20 percent said they did not know or had no opinion.
But when a random sample of participants was informed that Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens before answering this question, support for aid increased four percentage points, to 68 percent. These effects were especially large for Republicans (+9 percentage points), Trump voters (+10 percentage points) and Hispanic respondents (+12 percentage points). For example, 67 percent of Trump voters who saw a prompt informing them that Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens supported additional aid, compared with 57 percent who did not see the prompt.
These findings are consistent with research showing that people tend to allocate contributions in laboratory games toward fellow members of their group. They also underline the pivotal role the news media can play in shaping public sympathies. Previous research has found that competing stories can crowd foreign disasters out of the news, reducing aid provided by the United States.
In this case, the lack of media attention could lead people to ignore Puerto Rico’s plight. Our sympathies for other people depends in part on whether we see them as fellow members of our tribe. Without more coverage, it may be easy to forget that the people suffering are our fellow Americans.
Morning Consult data was collected from Sept. 22-24, 2017, among a national sample of 2,200 adults. The interviews were conducted online, and the data was weighted to approximate a target sample of adults based on age, race/ethnicity, gender, educational attainment and region.
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