Puerto Rico was in a serious economic crisis even before Hurricane Maria hit the Island in fall of 2017. In addition to rebuilding from the catastrophic damage caused by the hurricanes of 2017, Puerto Rico needs long-term economic growth. Continued population loss could be one of the biggest obstacles to growth.
The Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth in Puerto Rico recommended a number of actions in their final report, submitted to Congress in December 2016. These actions included equal treatment under federal healthcare funding and individual tax credit programs, improvements in energy production and distribution, equity in Small Business Administration benefits (including those related to disasters), better data collection, increased local agricultural production, and many more practical tactics for economic development. Little progress has been made on this list.
At the same time, the report alluded to Puerto Rico’s “staggering” population loss as one of the challenges facing Puerto Rico’s economy. The description was quoted from a research report describing the accelerating loss of population on the Island and saying, “[S]uch a large outflow of potentially productive workers and taxpayers is an alarming trend that is likely to have profound consequences for the Island for years to come.” This report was written well before the hurricane season of 2017, and Puerto Rico had already seen the greatest loss in population in its recorded history.
Estimates of Puerto Rico’s population loss in the decade preceding Hurricane Maria suggests that the territory lost 10% of its residents — half a million people.
Fewer workers, fewer taxpayers, fewer business investors, and fewer consumers — all these losses will affect Puerto Rico’s economy.
How has Hurricane Maria affected Puerto Rico’s population?
Nearly 3,000 died from Hurricane Maria. The Census Bureau estimates that 130,000 more left Puerto Rico after the hurricane.
These figures probably don’t tell the whole story. While the population change figures were released by the Census Bureau in December 2018, some early evacuees may have returned to Puerto Rico since then, while more may continue to leave as hardships continue and rebuilding continues to progress slowly.
Crowdsourced mapping of cell phone data between September 2017 and February 2018 shows that a high proportion of people who left Puerto Rico within that time frame returned.
Future net migration
Net migration — the number of people who leave, subtracted from the number who arrive — is another story. Puerto Rico’s current residents may continue to leave at the same rate as before Hurricane Maria, or at a higher rate. At the same time, depending on circumstances, newcomers may arrive, drawn by the opportunities created by rebuilding.
The Center for Puerto Rican Studies estimates that “Puerto Rico may lose up to 470,335 residents or 14% of the population. In other words, Puerto Rico will lose the same population in a span of a couple of years after Hurricane Maria as the island lost during a prior decade of economic stagnation.”
Population scientist Lyman Stone, who recently spoke at a PROMESA Fiscal Oversight Board meeting, sees the possibility of Puerto Rico’s population diminishing by as much as 41%. Lyman ran statistical models with a wide range of assumptions, and the Center for Puerto Rican Studies’s 14% is at the low end of all the possibilities.
Lyman fears that Puerto Rico’s population story may be worse than that of Ireland during the Great Famine, when more than 1.5 million Irish immigrants came to the United States. Ireland’s population has not yet recovered, 163 years later.
Will evacuees return to Puerto Rico?
One of the big questions is this: will hurricane evacuees return to Puerto Rico?
One survey found that roughly half of the evacuees from Puerto Rico have not yet decided whether to return to the Island. One third intend to do so, while fewer than 20% of those surveyed last fall plan to stay in the State where they are currently living.
Access to basic amenities like drinkable running water and electricity could be part of the decision making. The longer residents of Puerto Rico remain in crisis, the more likely it is that people who left after the hurricane will settle into their new stateside homes.
However, returning by ship from America to Ireland was far more difficult in 1858 than returning from Miami to Puerto Rico is in 2018. The data from Hurricane Katrina might be instructive.
Ten years after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the Crescent City, population was at 80% of the pre-Katrina figures. Some two thirds of the people who had left after the hurricane had returned.
Lyman points out that Puerto Rico has an aging population and, as of this writing, the lowest birth rates anywhere in U.S. States and territories. Certainly these factors are at least in part the result of the large numbers of young working people and families leaving the territory.
But the changes in Puerto Rico’s population must be taken into account as plans are made for the Island’s economic future. Plans that rely on a large, educated workforce will only be practical if the population can be stabilized and schools get their lights turned back on.