Puerto Rico: A Study of Population Loss amid Economic Decline

By Berridge, Scott | Monthly Labor Review, September 2015 | Go to article overview

Puerto Rico: A Study of Population Loss amid Economic Decline


Berridge, Scott, Monthly Labor Review


With a shrinking population and struggling economy, Puerto Rico is faced with some serious challenges. Its population has decreased by 5 percent in the last decade, mainly because of the out-migration, or emigration, of young people. Loss of both jobs and young workers is creating a vicious cycle of economic decline that is hard to escape. A shrinking tax base makes caring for an aging population a strain. Meanwhile, Puerto Rico attempts to support the elderly, many of whom are relatively poor, via an already fragile pension system. In "The causes and consequences of Puerto Rico's declining population" (Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Current Issues in Economics and Finance, Second District Highlights, volume 20, number 4, 2014), authors Jaison R. Able and Richard Deitz look at the challenges facing Puerto Rico.

Economic decline and a subsequent population downturn are often tied to the loss of key industries. The repeal of section 936 of the IRS code, which exempted multinational corporations from paying U.S. corporate income tax on profits from operations on the island, had a negative impact on employment and caused workers to look elsewhere for work. While Puerto Rico's population has been declining for decades, the economic losses in manufacturing accelerated this trend. Unemployment in Puerto Rico is highest among the least educated, and they would be apt to benefit from emigrating to the U.S. mainland where jobs are more plentiful; however, people with at least a high school diploma are more likely to have the means to relocate to the U.S. mainland.

To determine whether Puerto Rico has suffered a loss of intellectual capital, Able and Deitz measured the annual net migration of each of the following educational attainment groups: less than high school, high school graduate, some college, and college graduate. The authors calculated the net change as the number of immigrants less the number of emigrants. Although Puerto Rico has a net loss of citizens across all groups, the share of college-educated emigrants has fallen below the proportion of college-educated people in the general population. So although a brain drain has occurred and is of some concern, the emigration rate of less educated Puerto Ricans has exceeded that of the more educated population, and the net migration pattern shows that people with higher levels of educational attainment are less vulnerable to the economic forces driving Puerto Rico's demographic losses. …

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