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Adios, Puerto Rico; Hola, United States


September 16, 2004
Copyright © 2004 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Every family in Puerto Rico seems to have a son, a daughter, a parent, or another relative who has relocated to the U.S. mainland, making the island’s bond with the States personal as well as political. After decades of migration, there are now 30% more Puerto Ricans residing on the U.S. mainland than in Puerto Rico (not all four million residing in Puerto Rico are Puerto Ricans). By 2003, the Puerto Rican population on the mainland had reached 4.9 million, according to Geoscape International, a Miami firm that provides multicultural and multinational market intelligence. Add to this the estimated 3.6 million Puerto Ricans residing in Puerto Rico, according to the 2000 U.S. census, the total Puerto Rican population stands at about 8.5 million.

The difference in the standard of living between Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland, combined with the freedom of movement all Puerto Ricans enjoy as U.S. citizens, has led to the rise in migration, wrote Francisco L. Rivera-Batiz and Carlos E. Santiago in their book "Island Paradox." The continuous net migration of Puerto Ricans to the U.S. mainland confirms the commonwealth’s inability to provide adequate economic opportunities and a better quality of life to its residents. It is also depriving Puerto Rico of people who could help to advance the island’s economic development, including potential taxpayers. Migration contributes to a continuous brain drain and to the loss of billions of dollars invested in the education and training of those who migrate.

Why do they leave?

For many years, the commonwealth government fostered migration to the mainland as a quasiofficial economic development policy. It encouraged the mass emigration of hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans, creating all the mechanisms to foster large-scale emigration from Puerto Rico as a way of alleviating the overpopulation problem.

Contributing to the exodus were the establishment of Puerto Rico Migration Offices in various Midwestern and Eastern U.S. cities to aid in recruiting Puerto Rican workers, massive advertising campaigns, neglect in implementing U.S. minimum wages in Puerto Rico, and reduced airfares. The federal government didn’t object and wasn’t overly concerned about the commonwealth’s inability to generate sufficient jobs on the island, since the expanding industrial sector on the U.S. mainland was benefiting from access to a large number of workers who were U.S. citizens.

Officially, the recruitment of Puerto Ricans to work on the U.S. mainland began in the early 20th century. In 1900, after Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory, Puerto Ricans were being hired to work as far away as Hawaii. In 1910, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated the Puerto Rican population in the States at 1,500. During World War I, European migration to the U.S. was reduced, creating a need for a new source of labor. By the time the Jones Act was enacted in 1917, extending U.S. citizenship to the people of Puerto Rico, unemployment levels on the island were critical. At the same time, the States’ entry into World War I was creating labor shortages in many industries on the mainland, so the government set out "to increase common labor supply with Porto Ricans," as the U.S. Department of Labor wrote in its U.S. Employment Service Bulletin on May 21, 1918.

The agency said, "[The government] will shortly begin bringing Porto Rican laborers to the continental United States. Within a month, the first arrivals will be engaged in construction work on government contracts, and the Employment Service already has arranged for the employment of more than 10,000 islanders on war work at Norfolk, Newport News, and Baltimore and vicinity. Approximately 75,000 Porto Rican laborers already are available for work on the mainland."

In the 1930s, the global economic crisis hurt Puerto Rico’s sugar industry, forcing many rural and working-class agricultural laborers to migrate to the island’s cities in search of employment. The added pressure on the urban communities provoked a decline in the economic and living conditions in Puerto Rico’s cities. In the 1940s, the relative prosperity available in the U.S. and the easy access to New York prompted a fairly large wave of migration from Puerto Rico. There were 150,000 net migrants to the mainland in that decade, up from 18,000 in the 1930s and from 42,000 in the 1920s.

By 1930, there were over 50,000 Puerto Ricans residing on the mainland. Although the number of Puerto Ricans leaving for the States fell during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Census Bureau counted almost 70,000 living in the States in 1940. The big migration wave, however, took place after World War II, first via ships such as the Marine Tiger, the best-known of the vessels that sailed between San Juan and New York, and later by air.

Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, wrote in "The Other Underclass," an article published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1990, "During the 1940s and 1950s, a one-way ticket from San Juan to New York could be bought for less than $50, and installment plans were available for those without enough cash on hand. The administration of Luis Muñoz Marin may not have invented emigration, but it did what it could to help it along–first, by allowing small local airlines to drive down air fares and second, by establishing in 1948 a Migration Division in New York City, which assisted Puerto Ricans to find jobs and calm any mainland fears regarding the massive migration that could lead to restrictions, as had occurred previously with every large-scale ethnic group migration in the 20th century."

From 1950 to 1970, a period of rapid industrial expansion on the mainland enabled the U.S. to absorb the island’s surplus population. Economic opportunities on the mainland prompted Puerto Ricans by the thousands to brincar el charco and leave the island for employment in the States. In the 1950s and 1960s, Puerto Ricans departed to obtain industrial or manufacturing jobs in New York, in other urban centers in the northeast coast cities, or in Chicago, where the commonwealth government had fully staffed employment offices.

With the advent of commonwealth, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans relocated from the "Poorhouse of the Caribbean" to the U.S. mainland. Between 1950 and 1970, an estimated 700,000 Puerto Ricans left the island, fleeing poverty and seeking employment and a better quality of life. Many dreamed of returning to their island, and some did, but many more remained on the mainland since they were U.S. citizens and had no restrictions on their stay.

According to Rivera-Batiz and Santiago, 835,000 Puerto Ricans emigrated to the U.S. mainland on a net basis between 1940 and 1970, constituting one of the most massive emigration flows occurring anywhere in the 20th century. During the 1970s, the recession led to job losses in the northeast industrial sector, which prompted many Puerto Ricans to return to the island. However, over 65,000 more people left the island than came back.

The 1970s recession and the fiscal crisis in New York City undermined the gains made by the large number of Puerto Rican workers. This was partly the result of companies moving from the city to lower-wage areas in the southern and southwestern U.S. or abroad. Between 1940 and 1970, the Puerto Rican population in New York swelled from 60,000 to over 800,000.

In the 1980s, the net migration of Puerto Ricans stepped up again. Matthew Christenson of the Census Bureau concluded in a recent paper, "Evaluating Components of International Migration: Migration Between Puerto Rico and the U.S.," that the net migration from Puerto Rico to the U.S. mainland was 126,465 in the 1980s and 111,336 in the 1990s. That totals over a quarter of a million people, more than 7% of the island’s population in 1980.

And the numbers continue to climb. From 1990 to 2000, the Puerto Rican population on the U.S. mainland increased by 25% while the total population of Puerto Rico (including Puerto Ricans and non-Puerto Ricans) increased by approximately 10%.

A growing national presence

The latest wave of migration from Puerto Rico to the U.S. mainland is unique. In the past, Puerto Ricans were concentrated in major urban centers in the Mid Atlantic states such as New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut and in the industrial centers of Illinois and Ohio. Although Puerto Ricans are still moving to these locations today, they are also heading to Florida, Texas, the Carolinas, California, and elsewhere.

According to the Puerto Rican Legal Defense & Education Fund’s (PRLDEF) Latino Data Center, an official repository of U.S. census data, current Puerto Rican migration patterns seem to have been set in the late 1980s. The Puerto Rico population started to disperse more then, with the greatest gains in places such as Florida, the southern U.S., and California. New York’s role as the hub for stateside Puerto Ricans has changed, Puerto Ricans now have more of a presence throughout the States.

There were 1.05 million Puerto Ricans living in New York in 2000, according to the U.S. census, a decline of 36,000 or 3.3% from 1990, while the Puerto Rican population in Florida nearly doubled from 247,00 to 482,000. New Jersey’s Puerto Rican population increased by 46,000 to almost 367,000; in Pennsylvania, it grew by more than 53% to 230,000. Both Massachusetts and Connecticut increased by over 30% to almost 200,000 each, and there were 140,000 Puerto Ricans residing in California.

Although it once accounted for more than 80% of all stateside Puerto Ricans, New York has only about 30% today. Florida, home to almost half a million Puerto Ricans, has the second-largest concentration of Puerto Ricans on the U.S. mainland. Some of the fastest-growing Puerto Rican populations are in the south and southwest regions, according to the PRLDEF.

New York’s 1.05 million Puerto Ricans represent approximately 5.5% of the state’s total population, while Florida’s almost half-million represent 3% of that state’s population. Trailing behind these states in numbers of Puerto Rican residents are New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Illinois, Connecticut, and California. Connecticut’s roughly 200,000 Puerto Ricans represent some 5.7% of the total state population.

In Florida, a key electoral state, particularly in presidential elections, Puerto Ricans are offsetting and potentially vying for prominence with the Cuban vote. This gives Puerto Rican voters greater national significance. That the stateside Puerto Rican population is larger than the island’s also creates a new dynamic in the San Juan-Washington relationship. This new relationship and the significant Puerto Rican presence in electoral politics position Puerto Ricans, who are all U.S. citizens, to play a greater role in national politics.

According to the U.S. census, Puerto Ricans represented 10% of the Hispanic population on the U.S. mainland in 2000, down from 12% in 1990. The decline was due in part to a large influx of immigrants from Latin American nations. If we were to include the people in Puerto Rico, however, Puerto Ricans would compose 18% of the Hispanic population on the U.S. mainland, outnumbering all other Hispanic groups except Mexicans.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 60% of the Hispanics are not eligible to vote in the U.S. because they are either underage or not U.S. citizens. Assuming, a Hispanic population in the U.S. mainland of approximately 35 million in 2000, it would leave just 14 million Hispanics eligible to vote. Voters in Puerto Rico added to the Puerto Ricans eligible to vote on the mainland, could represent over 4 million votes or over 60% of the 6.2 million Hispanics who actually voted in the 2000 election.

Puerto Ricans living on the island aren’t counted among the Hispanics residing in the U.S.; in fact, they aren’t included in the U.S. population count at all. Puerto Rico also isn’t included in the Current Population Surveys that the Census Bureau conducts to update its decennial census. In terms of the U.S. population, the Census Bureau defines the nation as comprising only the 50 states and the District of Columbia. In 2000, the Census Bureau counted 3.4 million Puerto Ricans on the U.S. mainland and 3.6 million in Puerto Rico (since not everyone residing on the island is Puerto Rican).

In 2001, a study prepared by Matthew Christenson for the Census Bureau revealed that most of the Puerto Ricans moving to the U.S. mainland were young adults between the ages of 15 and 39. The return migration was of people age 50 and up. A closer look at the numbers would show the majority returning to the island was 60 years and over.

Those leaving the island today are generally educated professionals looking for better-paying jobs and a better quality of life. They are as likely to be heading to Florida as to the northeast. Physicians, engineers, computer specialists, businesspeople, teachers, nurses, economists, carpenters, taxi drivers, and other Puerto Ricans in their prime are leaving the island. As the Hispanic population in the U.S. increases, it creates a greater need for qualified Spanish-speaking individuals. Experienced and educated people leaving the island aren’t easily replaced, which affects Puerto Rico’s economic development. CARIBBEAN BUSINESS sounded the alarm over a decade ago with a front-page story in 1990 titled "Brain Drain to the Mainland."

Some of those who dreamed of returning to Puerto Rico are doing so, but at an older age, contributing to the graying of the island’s population. Data from the Census Bureau indicate that over the next decade, the distribution of Puerto Rico’s population will shift dramatically. This redistribution is starting to be felt in society with the growth of the segment of the population age 65 and older, which generally doesn’t engage in productive activities in the economy.

As baby boomers age, the increase in the number of older retirees relative to the shrinking working-age population creates social and political pressures on social support systems, including the healthcare system. Disability, frailty, and chronic diseases (Alzheimer’s, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, etc.) are also expected to become significantly more prevalent, putting substantial pressure on the government to provide healthcare for its residents.

Island Puerto Ricans vs. stateside Puerto Ricans

According to the PRLDEF’s comparison of the Current Population Survey of March 2002 with the Puerto Rico decennial census, Puerto Ricans on the U.S. mainland are doing better economically than those residing in Puerto Rico.

The average annual income of stateside Puerto Rican men was $31,354, higher than that of all other Hispanic men and more than 2.5 times that of men on the island. Puerto Rican females on the mainland had average annual earnings of $23,582, compared with $11,271 in Puerto Rico. The median household income for stateside Puerto Ricans was $28,734, or almost double Puerto Rico’s $14,412. The median household income for Puerto Ricans on the mainland was 68% of the U.S. median, while Puerto Rico’s was a mere 34%. In terms of median family income, the difference was $30,095 for Puerto Ricans on the mainland and $16,543 for those in Puerto Rico. The average family income of mainland Puerto Ricans stretches further than it does in Puerto Rico, since the average family on the mainland has fewer members and the cost of living on the island is higher than in many areas of the mainland.

While 36.5% of the full-time employees in Puerto Rico had annual earnings of less than $10,000, just 4.7% on the mainland reported earnings of less than $10,000. At the same time, 18.2% on the mainland had annual income of more than $50,000, while only 5.3% in Puerto Rico surpassed that amount.

On the U.S. mainland, nearly 67% of Puerto Ricans age 25 and older have completed high school or a higher level of education, compared with less than 60% on the island. Their participation rate in the stateside labor force was over 60%, in contrast to less than 40% in Puerto Rico. The participation rate of male Puerto Ricans in the States was 67%, whereas on the island it was 48.5%. In terms of the participation rate of female Puerto Ricans, the difference was more than 20 percentage points: 55.4% on the mainland versus 33.7% in Puerto Rico. The unemployment rate was 9.6% among Puerto Ricans on the mainland and 19.2% among those on the island, according to the U.S. census. The unemployment rate for females was 7.6%, compared with 21.2% in Puerto Rico.

The poverty rate for Puerto Ricans residing in the States was 26.1%, compared with 48.2% on the island. In Puerto Rico, 44.6% of all families lived under the federal poverty level versus 24.2% on the mainland. The difference was even greater for married couples; just 10.9% in the States lived below the poverty level, compared with 51.7% in Puerto Rico. More alarming is that in Puerto Rico, 91.3% of all female-headed families were living under the poverty level, more than twice the 43.6% of families headed by Puerto Rican females on the mainland. What’s even more disturbing, however, is that the PRLDEF concluded from its analysis of U.S. census data that the poverty rate in Puerto Rico was 185% that of stateside Puerto Ricans and 618% that of non-Latino whites in the U.S.

Jose A. Garcia, the PRLDEF’s policy analysis & advocacy coordinator, said, "The Puerto Rican community has become invisible as the nation’s concerns focus on Hispanics as immigrants, and as politicians and the media focus on a general Hispanic vote. There is a need to refocus on the different communities that make up this broader Latino or Hispanic phenomenon so the needs of the eight million Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, don’t continue to fall between the cracks."

The PRLDEF concluded that the status of stateside Puerto Ricans can’t be divorced from Puerto Rico’s status as the sender of so many migrants to the U.S. mainland. Neither can the political implications of this migration be overlooked, since Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and, if residing on the mainland, are eligible to vote in stateside elections.

Political significance

When Puerto Ricans move to the U.S. mainland from Puerto Rico, they need not apply for citizenship or residency, as our Latin American neighbors are required to do. Puerto Ricans can also register to vote in any location they choose to live in, just as any U.S. citizen can when he or she moves from one state to another. The commonwealth has succeeded in sending Puerto Rican voters to the states where their votes count. The influence of the Puerto Rican vote on the mainland will continue to increase, affecting local, state, and national elections.

About 60% of registered Hispanic voters in the States are Mexican, though a considerable 15% are Puerto Rican; Cubans follow with 6%, according to the 2004 "National Survey of Latinos: Politics & Civic Participation," published by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Kaiser Family Foundation. Puerto Ricans in the States, unlike those residing on the island, are now in a position to play a major role in national politics, not only in areas which traditionally have high concentrations of Puerto Ricans but throughout the nation. The growing presence of Puerto Ricans and their votes are of national significance. The massive population shift to the U.S. mainland has created links between the U.S. mainland and Puerto Rico that go beyond economics, and it is too late to turn back–the majority of Puerto Ricans are already residing on the mainland.

As Puerto Ricans have become more integrated into the mainland economic process, they have taken mainland politics more seriously, recognizing their economic future depends on their involvement and their votes. Many have also become more engaged in the U.S. political system because they have realized their stay on the mainland is of a permanent nature. This is something migrants arriving in the U.S. from Latin American countries or from other foreign nations are unable to do.

In 2000, according to the Institute of Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame, Puerto Ricans on the mainland had a registration rate of 63.5%; the voter turnout among registered voters was 80.7%. Puerto Rican voters residing in Florida, the state that decided the presidential election in 2000, can exert substantial influence on this year’s presidential race. Puerto Rican voters on the mainland could also make a difference in electing the U.S. president.

Puerto Ricans on the mainland have permanent ties to the island, much as those who reside in Puerto Rico maintain ties with family and friends in the States. These bonds aren’t merely financial or political; they are ties that really bind–family ties.

As a growing number of Puerto Ricans continue to relocate to the mainland and as older Puerto Ricans return to the island, the freedom of movement granted to the individual Puerto Rican as a U.S. citizen becomes imperative in any decision regarding the island’s political status. Politicians in Washington and San Juan must take heed that, irrespective of their own political agendas or desires, Puerto Ricans’ freedom to travel, work, live, and vote anywhere on the mainland will be a crucial factor in such a decision. U.S. citizenship is the primary factor that has prevented rafts full of Puerto Ricans from fleeing the island as scores in neighboring Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic have done.

In Puerto Rico, politics has been called a national sport or a pastime. Over 80% of registered voters on the island participate in elections. Puerto Ricans on the island become involved in every issue and are inspired by the political process. However, Puerto Rico’s inability to include its almost 2.3 million registered voters in stateside congressional and national elections prevents the island from influencing decisions concerning its economic future.

Puerto Ricans residing on the island are worse off financially and politically than Puerto Ricans residing on the mainland. The essential features of commonwealth, such as the lack of electoral representation, the partial participation in federal programs, and the partial exemption from federal taxes, have all been instrumental in making Puerto Rico a halfway island for its residents. In Puerto Rico, U.S. citizens are denied their civil right to vote for president of the nation that governs them.

Every day, Puerto Ricans on the mainland achieve a more prominent role as workers, consumers, business owners, and public servants and obtain greater public exposure. Puerto Rican food, art, music, and literature are transforming the American landscape. Adding two million Puerto Rican votes could go a long way toward improving the well-being not only of all Puerto Ricans in the States and Puerto Rico, but of all Hispanics on the mainland.

Economist Manuel Maldonado assisted with this series. Elisabeth Roman edited the articles.

Next week, CARIBBEAN BUSINESS will present a comparison between the federal funds received in Puerto Rico and those received by the States.

Puerto Ricans in Top States 1990-2000

State: 2000 Puerto Rican Total / 1990 Puerto Rican Total / Numeric Change Puerto Rican / Percent Change Puerto Rican

New York: 1,050,298 / 1,086,601 / (36,308) / -3.3

Florida: 482,207 / 247,017 / 235,017 / 95.1

New Jersey: 366,788 / 320,133 / 46,655 / 14.6

Pennsylvania: 228,557 / 148,988 / 79,569 / 53.4

Massachusetts: 199,207 / 151,193 / 48,014 / 31.8

Connecticut: 194,443 / 146,842 / 47,601 / 32.4

Illinois: 157,861 / 146,059 / 11,792 / 8.1

California: 140,570 / 126,417 / 14,153 / 11.2

Texas: 69,504 / 42,981 / 26,523 / 61.7

Ohio: 66,269 / 45,853 / 20,416 / 44.5

Source: Inter-University Program for Latino Research (IUPLR), University of Notre Dame; PRLDEF

Puerto Rican Household Income Comparison

Puerto Ricans living in the States: $28,738

Puerto Ricans living in Puerto Rico: $14,412

Source: U.S. Census Current Population Survey 2002, U.S. Census 2000

Analysis: PRLDEF

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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