Dwindling Populations in US Territories

Puerto Rico population

Between 2010 and 2020, three states saw decreases in population: West Virginia, which lost 3.2% of its people; Mississippi, the population of which fell by .2%; and Illinois, which lost .1% of its residents. The remaining 47 states all grew.

Not so the territories. The United States has five inhabited territories, and all of them saw dwindling population numbers.

  • U.S. Virgin Islands −18.1%
  • Northern Mariana Islands −12.2%
  • Puerto Rico −11.8%
  • American Samoa −10.5%
  • Guam −3.5%

The Washington Post recently wrote about this population drop in the territories, wondering why five territories which are geographically and culturally distinct from one another should share the population drop.

Section 936?

While the Post acknowledged that they got a range of different answers when they searched for an explanation, one of the factors they thought might help explain the loss was Section 936.  After some research, they concluded that the termination of Section 936 did not tell the whole story.  Congressional oversight over the years has confirmed that Section 936’s end cannot be blamed for the population loss.

The End of Section 936

Section 936 was an aggressive tax incentive that allowed multinational companies to wash profits through Puerto Rico without creating jobs or investing in infrastructure.

“While not all policymakers agree,” observed the Post, some analysts had concluded many years ago that the end of Section 936 combined with the rise of offshoring to China caused pharmaceutical companies to leave Puerto Rico. The expiration of a number of drug patents was another factor that added to some leave-taking among pharma companies; however, Puerto Rico continues to be the largest U.S. exporter of pharmaceuticals.

“The declining population of Puerto Rico in part is due to the economic crisis created by the elimination of Section 936,” they quote a Chinese economist as saying.

Yet a report from the Senate Finance Committee shows that jobs in pharmaceuticals manufacturing declined by just 1.1% during the phase-out of Section 936, making it implausible that this was a central part of the population drop in Puerto Rico. Obviously, it did not cause the equivalent drops in the other territories, which did not have Section 936.

Falling birthrates and aging populations

Puerto Rico has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, a severely declining birthrate, and an aging population. Like some independent nations in Europe and Asia, Puerto Rico no longer has enough people of working age to support its aging population.

Factor in the lack of medical funding and the fragility of the healthcare system, and Puerto Rico is not in a good position to care for its elderly. SSI, a supplement for disabled elderly people, is not available in Puerto Rico or the other territories (except for the Northern Mariana Islands), leaving the neediest residents at a greater disadvantage than in any state.

The Post points out that the territories end up in a vicious cycle as their populations dwindle. A shrinking tax base reduces services and amenities, young people see better opportunities in the states, people of working age leave, and the tax base shrinks further. With fewer young families and fewer children, the future is increasingly uncertain.

Climate risk

Hurricane Maria destroyed much of Puerto Rico and left residents in many parts of the Island without electricity for months. Hurricane Fiona has left hundreds of thousands without power or running water.

Not only are hurricanes a threat to life on the island territories, but they are also seeing erosion, flooding, and loss of land mass. Experts have long suggested that “climate refugees” will be displaced by climate change in their homes and forced to move elsewhere.

For residents of U.S. territories, the United States is an easy elsewhere to move to. As citizens (or nationals, in the case of American Samoa) of the United States, territory residents are able to move to a state at will. Once they arrive, they can vote in presidential elections, receive federal benefits, and work or study freely. The territories’ losses are the states’ gains.



One of the the main reasons the population is reducing is the fact that there are not enough jobs on the island and the wages are not high enough to make a reasonable living.
Maybe the island government and the U.S. should get together and try to get more jobs on the island instead of sending the jobs to other countries. I am pretty sure the people leaving would much prefer to remain on their island.
I must say that if i were not retired and had to work, i would probably have to relocate to the U.S. or some other country.
I can cite a couple of examples of employer greed. Michaels, a crafts company, had a store in Arecibo when i first relocated here. All of a sudden they closed the store and left the island. I asked them why and they said due to lack of business. I thought that was strange since they have five (5) stores in my home town of Jacksonville, Fl. and i have been in all of them and never have i seen as many people in any one of them as i used to see in our one (1) store. The second example would be WalMart. They have one (1) store in Arecibo, which has a population of 100k +/-. My home town has, seventeen(17). with a population of 1m+/-. I am pretty sure the Arecibo would support a second store. If you have any doubt just visit the store on any day, but be prepared to wait in long lines, even at the self service registers, which, by the way, i love. No they do not cost jobs. They allow the store to put more personnel on the floor to assist customers.


I sent this Letter to the Washington Post in response to their article describing why U.S. territories are losing population:

RE: People are fleeing Puerto Rico, Guam and every other U.S. territory. What gives? by Andrew Van Dam

Dear Editors:

Mark Zandi (“its not hard for residents in the territories to leave’) and Andrew Van Dam’s (“there’s a simple way to break out of the constitutional limbo of territorial status-move to the mainland”) respective statements belies the reality of many lives in Puerto Rico.

The Roman family in Arecibo and Ponce, Puerto Rico are country folks with simple homes, small pieces of land and no desire to live in any large city.

I agree with Professor Feliciano that the elimination of Section 936 created an economic crisis that increased emigration from Puerto Rico.

But her position fails to acknowledge the root cause of the problem. The total disenfranchisement and unequal treatment of the Island’s 3.2 million U.S. citizens are the cause of the Island’s problems.

The territorial status that allows Congress to discriminate against Island residents in all federal social safety net programs impacts ALL aspects of their lives.

Ignoring the disparity between living as a statehooder in NY or Florida and residing in an unequal territory is the major obstacle to reversing this emigration.

Gene Roman

Evidence Links: 4





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