Puerto Ricans Are Fleeing the Economic Disaster That Is Their Home Island

The future is looking dim, kid.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Puerto Rico is a slow-rolling economic wreck. The island’s unemployment rate is around 13.1 percent. Poverty is around 45 percent. And it’s buried in debt.

To top that all off, it’s shrinking. In a new report, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York tracks Puerto Rico’s ongoing population decline. Over nine years, the number of residents has dwindled by 5.5 percent, thanks in part to falling birthrates but mostly to migration. While that kind of dip has occurred in a few U.S. states before, it’s still a rather stark symbol of how dire the situation on the island has become. Worse yet, the exodus has been speeding up in recent years. “Nearly one-third of those born in Puerto Rico live on the U.S. mainland,” the report notes.

So who’s leaving the island? The emigrant class is disproportionately made up of young people without college degrees, which means, oddly, that migration is raising the overall level of education among those left on the island. But that’s cold comfort. Population declines can be a symptom of economic malaise. They also perpetuate that malaise by shrinking tax rolls and killing growth, which is pretty much the last thing a small, semi-autonomous island needs when it’s struggling to pay back creditors.