New Census Data on Puerto Rico

New data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows real signs of recovery from Hurricane Maria, even though the news is not all positive.

Data from the 2017 and 2018 American Community Surveys (ACS) and Puerto Rico Community Surveys (PRCS) show that Puerto Rico’s poverty rate decreased by 1.3 percentage points, from 44.4% in 2017 to 43.1% in 2018.

The average poverty rate for the United States as a whole is 13.1%. The poorest state, Mississippi, has a poverty rate of 19.7%. So Puerto Rico continues to have a much higher rate of poverty than any of the States.

What’s more, the difference between the 2018 rate and the 2016 rate is not statistically significant. That means that it is possible that the difference between those two rates is just coincidence. The difference is not large enough to allow us to be sure that poverty has been reduced since 2016.

In other words, it is possible that 2017’s higher poverty level was a result of the 2017 destruction caused by Hurricane Maria, and the 2018 improvement is a movement back to normal.

Population continues to fall

Puerto Rico may be heading upwards economically after the 2017 hurricane season. The number of people leaving Puerto Rico, however, continues to grow. As the chart at the top of the page shows, the number of people moving from Puerto Rico to the States increased by 36.9% in 2018, compared with 2017. The total population of the territory decreased by 4.4% in 2018.

These numbers are statistically significant. Puerto Rico was already seeing a dwindling population, years before Hurricane Maria, but the rate of migration has increased.

A company called Terralytics used cell phone data from October 2017 to February 2018, when data on migration from Puerto Rico to the mainland was sketchy and numbers were speculative. Teralytics determined that 12% of the population left Puerto Rico, and half that number — 6% — returned.

In February, the number of people who returned to Puerto Rico was larger than the number who left. Terralytics data would predict a 6% loss in the sixth months they tracked the data, with hope of an increase in the net population after that.

The Census Bureau’s 4.4% is within the likely range.

Where are migrants going?

Those who have left Puerto Rico for the States are following different paths from earlier migrants. One third have moved to Florida, making the Sunshine State the State with the largest Puerto Rican population. This population change has affected the political landscape in this famously volatile swing State.

People moving to the South from Puerto Rico increased by 50% in 2018 compared with 2017. States like Georgia, South Carolina, and Texas are beginning to see significant Puerto Rican populations. The Northeast saw an increase of 30% and the Midwest saw the only drop — 14%.

But the biggest change was in the smallest sector of the state-ward bound: the West. Though fewer Puerto Ricans moved to the West than to any other region, the number doing so was nearly twice as large as in 2017.

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