|March 18, 2005
Copyright © 2005 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
Island Flight: A Growing Threat?
Over the past months, most news stories about Puerto Rico have been about politics: the campaigns, the voting, the results, the recounts and the partisan infighting as the new island government takes shape. To the average reader, the impression left is that the most important factor in the islands future is what candidate and which political party is to lead the islands course over the next four years.
Demographers see Puerto Ricos future very differently. They wonder what kind of a society will exist on the island in ten, twenty, and fifty years. What will the population look like as a result of the net immigration loss, the declining birth rate, the aging population and other trends observable on the island of the Twenty-first Century?
Without doubt, the most important of these phenomena, at least in the short run, is the large and growing exodus of Puerto Ricans from the island. It is impossible to track this trend precisely since, unlike emigration from a foreign country, there are no visa applications or other public records available to determine the numbers. Even airline ticket purchases are imprecise, since there is no way to determine if the passenger is on his/her way to Orlando to visit Disney World or to find a job.
Such imprecision has led to speculation about what exactly is the proportion of Puerto Ricans living on the U.S. mainland as compared to those resident of the island. A recent article in Caribbean Business stated that there were "a million more Puerto Ricans living on the mainland than on the island." This claim is supported by the source-of- record on the subject, the U.S. Census Bureau. That agencys 2002 projection was that there were approximately 8.6 million persons living in all of the United States (including on the island) whose self-described ethnic identity was Puerto Rican.
Subtracting the 3.8 million residents of record on the island in 2002 from the Census Bureaus total, the one-million-more mainland Puerto Rican number is sustainable. Even so, this figure says little about the current exodus trend from the island, since many who make up the mainland figures are third, fourth and even fifth generation residents who continue to characterize themselves as Puerto Rican. Some, perhaps, have never visited the island.
Although there is speculation as to how many Boricuas wave Adiós to the island on a somewhat permanent basis, we can gain some insights of its importance as we read newspapers in Florida, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and other states encompassing the Puerto Rican Diaspora. Puerto Ricans are making their presence felt in the economy, politics and community life of mainland cities and counties, principally but not exclusively in the East, Southeast and Southwest regions of the United States.
A recent report in the Orlando Sentinel cited a current study made by the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce that, by 2003, 206,000 Puerto Ricans had settled in the five counties of Central Florida alone. Taking into account the entire state, a conservative estimate puts the Puerto Rican population of Florida at 250,000, or 6.5% of the entire population of Puerto Rico itself. Arguably, the most important story coming out of the 2004 elections was not if islanders would vote red, blue or green, but rather if the large and growing Puerto Rican population of Central Florida would lean towards John Kerry or George W. Bush in their quest for the U.S. Presidency.
As they settle into jobs, homes and schools on the mainland, Puerto Ricans become a part of the economic base of their new communities. Their productivity adds to the GDP (gross domestic product) of their states and their taxes contribute to the funding accounts of public sector projects. No longer is their productivity advancing the economy of their former island home.
This is perhaps the most worrisome factor in the population hemorrhaging that Puerto Rico is now experiencing. Many of those leaving the island are the younger and, in many cases, better trained individuals who have been unable to find suitable employment in Puerto Rico. The concern is that, after they establish themselves on the mainland, they are unlikely to return, unless to retire with their productive days over.
In this, we see a dire possibility facing Puerto Rico. Overall in spite of the large numbers permanently leaving the islands population is not declining. It is growing, albeit slowly, and it is growing older. Longevity is keeping the Puerto Rico population stable in spite of the exodus of its younger residents.
The U.S. Census estimates that the Puerto Rican population older than 65 will double in the next 25 years. During that same period, a 20% drop is expected in the under-20 age group. The islands already extremely slow population growth rate will get even slower. In the 1990s the population was growing at an annual rate of less than 1 percent; an annual growth rate of 0.4 percent is predicted for the first quarter of this century.
In 2004, the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) issued a study on the long-term implications of Puerto Ricos demographic trends.
The report stated that "On the one hand, the islands population is growing slowly (declining birthrate) and aging rapidly at the same time. An economic transition characterized by declining yields and low economic growth rates is occurring simultaneously. All these trends are creating major changes in the over-50 population, which is quickly becoming one of the largest age groups in the country (sic)." One stark conclusion of the report was that "Puerto Rico senior citizens are four or five times more likely to live in poverty than their counterparts on the mainland."
Unless trends change, the island of the year 2025 will be characterized by a population dominated by elderly and economically disadvantaged senior citizens making a huge impact on health care, transportation, and housing services.
It is clear that the principal remedy for this situation is more jobs on the island in order to stem the tide of younger Puerto Ricans leaving to find work on the mainland. A massive public sector payroll has not been the answer and is hurting the economy more than it helps. What is the most important thing that the Commonwealth can do to reverse this trend.