Puerto Rico's population in decline for first time in 50+ years
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Puerto Rico's population in decline for first time in 50+ years

Population density—specifically, overpopulation–has long been a concern in Puerto Rico. Until recently, the 100-by-35-mile Caribbean island and U.S. commonwealth had a population of four million. That’s almost 1,150 people per square mile.

When the United States acquired Puerto Rico in the Spanish-American War of 1898, the island’s population was less than one million; by the mid-1900s, it was more than 2.25 million. Dr. J. Mayone Stycos, a public health researcher of the era, exclaimed that “[a]t this rate of increase, assuming no migration, the island would have approximately nine million inhabitants in another 50 years!”

Though Stycos’s prediction was more than a bit exaggerated, the doubling of the population again between the mid-20th century and the beginning of the 21st century did put a strain on the small island. Environmental advocates warned about the long-term inability of Puerto Rico to sustain its population at such numbers, cautioning that land and other resources, including water, would be stretched to their maximum capacities and would probably suffer permanent damage. Social analysts pointed out that other problems, such as chronically high unemployment and elevated violent crime rates, already acute concerns, would likely escalate as the population continued to increase.

It was a bit of a surprise, then, earlier this month when staff at Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project reported that Puerto Rico’s population is now declining for the first time since the so-called “Great Migration” that followed World War II.

The reason? A deepening island-wide financial crisis that is forcing many Puerto Ricans to seek work on the U.S. mainland.

Pew reported that the island population dipped to 3.6 million in 2013, meaning that 144,000 Puerto Ricans left the island for the mainland between 2010 and 2013. Though figures for the first half of 2014 aren’t yet available, anecdotes of departure abound.

Gabrielle Santana moved from Puerto Rico to Florida five months ago after completing her college degree on the island. “I saw that there weren’t many opportunities for me in PR,” she said, “and I found a great job in a PR agency in Miami. My friends back at home are still working at the mall and restaurants.”

Santana’s friends, however, may be fortunate to have a job at all. Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate in July 2014 was 13.1%, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks data for all 50 states and holdings of the U.S. High unemployment is just one marker of the island’s precarious economy; meanwhile, the commonwealth’s government teeters on the edge of default.

With prospects for economic recovery looking bleak, it’s likely that the exodus of boricuas will continue, says Dr. Edwin Meléndez, professor of urban affairs and planning and the director of Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York City.

Underreported in U.S. media

The demographic shift hasn’t made much news in the mainstream U.S. media, which has been preoccupied with the considerably larger number of Central Americans entering the U.S. over the past year, many of them unaccompanied minors. To be fair, the journey to the U.S. for Puerto Ricans is far easier than it is for Central Americans, as the former are U.S. citizens who need to do nothing more than buy a ticket, board a plane and put down roots.

But the story of Puerto Rican migration, while less dramatic and heart-rending on the surface, is significant in its own way.

Island economies are rarely stable, much less thriving. Islands can’t produce everything they need; thus, they rely heavily on imports. Exports, meanwhile, are limited. The number of jobs is usually exceeded by the number of people who need one, even in years when the economy is chugging along. And the social safety net, if there is one at all, generally can’t catch all of the people who need it to break their fall.

Unfortunately, it seems that the decision to move to the mainland isn’t one that necessarily results in an improved financial situation for many Puerto Ricans. Although they tend to have more formal education than Puerto Ricans who arrived in the earlier “Great Migration,” the boricuas in the current exodus from the island, are, as a group, less financially stable and more likely to live in poverty once on the U.S. mainland, according to Pew.

A record number of Puerto Ricans are moving from the island to the mainland U.S., according to a Pew study. Photo: Francisco

A record number of Puerto Ricans are moving from the island to the mainland U.S., according to a Pew study. Photo: Francisco Collazo

Immigration’s “no man’s land”

Puerto Ricans who move to the U.S. also find themselves in an immigrants’ no man’s land compared to other migrant groups. While they may benefit from their automatic citizenship status, that same condition means there are limited services to help them transition to life as cultural and geographical transplants. Instead, they are expected to integrate easily.

Doing so is a challenge for this new generation of boricua migrants, who are more geographically dispersed than the preceding wave of Puerto Rican immigrants. The majority of those who arrived in the Great Migration settled in New York City, creating a home away from home. Today, though, Puerto Ricans who come to the mainland are as likely to live in the southern, midwestern or western U.S. as they are in the northeast, their traditional stronghold.

“Like in Charles Dickens’s novel, the state of Puerto Ricans is a tale of two populations, two communities,” says Meléndez. “A tale about resiliency in the midst of declining opportunity and the challenges faced by those still caught in the trough of recession. And it is also a tale,” he adds, “about those who leave the island.”

The communities being created through this new wave of migration will constitute a new chapter in the story of the complicated relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States, one that is still very much in the process of being written.