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Population Drain in a New Nation of Puerto Rico

One of Puerto Rico’s most serious problems right now is population drain.  Residents are moving to the states in increasing numbers – a problem exacerbated after Hurricane Maria hit in 2017.

Legislation currently pending before the U.S. House of Representatives would give Puerto Rico voters an opportunity to end the island’s current status as a U.S. territory and choose between statehood or nationhood. As Congress considers the proposal, the question arises – How would changes in Puerto Rico’s status affect Puerto Rico’s population?

Puerto Rico’s dwindling population

Between 2010 and 2019, Puerto Rico’s population fell by 14%. New numbers from the U.S. Census show continued decline in the population.

All 78 municipalities showed a drop in population. Deaths outpace births as the Island’s population continues to fall, and net outmigration — that is, more people leaving the Island than coming to Puerto Rico — continues to threaten the population.

Many of the people leaving are younger, working age people and young families. This exacerbates the problem of an aging population. What’s more, many of those leaving the Island are doctors and other professional people.  There is also increased recognition that people who are migrating to Puerto Rico may be simply taking advantage of tax loopholes and not participating fully in the local communities.

How would statehood affect Puerto Rico’s population?

People can already move freely between Puerto Rico and any state. People born in the territory of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens, and it is just as easy to move from Puerto Rico to Florida as to move from Florida to Alabama.

As a state, Puerto Rico could expect to improve its economic position and increase its population. Hawaii, the last island territory to become a state, went from 499,769 people in the 1950 census to 632,772 on the 1960 census right after statehood. Alabama tripled its population in the year following statehood, Illinois went from 12,282 to 55,211 between 1810 and 1820, after its admittance as a state in 1818. Indeed, it would be difficult to find a territory that did not see a jump in population after it was admitted as a state.

Since the most common reason for leaving Puerto Rico for a state is greater economic opportunity, it is reasonable to expect that the greater stability and prosperity that come with statehood would lead, for Puerto Rico as for the other states, to population increases. People born in Puerto Rico who left might return to the island, and other Americans might also move to Puerto Rico.

How would nationhood affect Puerto Rico’s population?

Only a tiny fraction of Puerto Rico voters have ever chosen independence in a referendum vote: 5% is the largest percentage that has ever voted for this status option. If Puerto Rico became independent, it would doubtless go through economic hardships comparable to those experienced by the Philippines, and indeed by other nations in the Caribbean and in Latin America to this day.

While independence has gained popularity among stateside Puerto Ricans – many of whose U.S. citizenship is not at risk – the chances that independence supporters living stateside would return to Puerto Rico are slim. Cuba sent the largest refugee migration in history to the U.S. after their revolution in 1959. The Filipino Repatriation Act attempted to send former U.S. nationals back to the Philippines after their independence in 1946, but fewer than 2,000 agreed to go, even though independence was far more popular in the Philippines than it has ever been in Puerto Rico.

Ongoing losses in population in Puerto Rico are already creating economic trials on the Island. With greatly limited U.S. support and the likelihood of continued diminishment in population, a new nation of Puerto Rico would probably face continuing shortages of medical care, a dwindling tax and customer base, and labor shortages, begging the question of what’s a nation without its people?

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