‘A new Maria.’ Puerto Rico’s next crisis is a demographic crisis

The island’s population dropped nearly 12 percent from 2010 to 2020, altering Puerto Rico’s society, economy and culture.
People protest outside the executive mansion known has La Fortaleza in Old San Juan demanding the resignation of Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced after the discovery of an old warehouse filled with emergency supplies in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Jan. 20, 2020. The island’s population declined 11.8 percent between 2010 and 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
People protest outside the executive mansion known has La Fortaleza in Old San Juan demanding the resignation of Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced after the discovery of an old warehouse filled with emergency supplies in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Jan. 20, 2020. The island’s population declined 11.8 percent between 2010 and 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. [ CARLOS GIUSTI | AP ]
Published May 25, 2021|Updated May 25, 2021

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Sheilla Rodríguez never imagined she would leave Puerto Rico. The 48-year-old university professor had made her life on the island, near family and friends.

“Moving wasn’t an option,” she said.

But when an employment opportunity with better salary and labor conditions came up in Florida, her husband and child moved to Miami.

Rodríguez followed three years later, completing her family’s gradual migration and uprooting her existence to begin anew, far from home and loved ones.

Rodríguez is one of the hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans who have left the island in the last decade, a migration propelled by an economic crisis and a string of natural disasters that have devastated Puerto Rico in recent years.

“We love Puerto Rico. It’s our country. However, objectively speaking, we need to recognize that it’s a country in deterioration and at a political crossroads. If it doesn’t come out of it, things could get much worse,” she said.

Carmen Morales Rivera, director of the Unemployment Office in San Juan, Puerto Rico, with Mónica Rodríguez and Kevin Marengo in the Department of Labor building, after Maria’s passage.
Carmen Morales Rivera, director of the Unemployment Office in San Juan, Puerto Rico, with Mónica Rodríguez and Kevin Marengo in the Department of Labor building, after Maria’s passage. [ DAVID SANTIAGO | Miami Herald ]

The island’s population declined 11.8 percent between 2010 and 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, whose results are used to determine billions of dollars in public funding. Demographers say that steady migration, coupled with a declining birth rate that’s lower than the death rate, is creating a “demographic crisis” that will fundamentally alter Puerto Rico’s society, economy and culture, as family structures change and there are fewer workers to pay for government services.

“It will literally be another world, another society. It’s not only that there will be fewer people, it’s that the structure completely changes. It’s a complete transformation,” said Hernando Mattei, a demography professor at the Medical Sciences Campus of the University of Puerto Rico.

Mattei is part of an academic collaboration that is studying the island’s population changes and raising the alarm on how they will impact Puerto Rico. The experts are also advocating for policy recommendations to reverse or slow down the trend.

“How do we change the situation so that the fertility rate doesn’t keep going down, and that the immigration rate is reduced?” the UPR professor said. “The other thing that is important is that we identify the adaptations to face the new demographic scenario. You cannot continue with a series of public policies for a demographic situation that no longer exists.”

A birth rate lower than the death rate since 2016

Puerto Rico’s population peaked in 2004, at 3.8 million. However, an economic crisis exploded in 2006, setting in motion a migration as Puerto Ricans looked for better opportunities elsewhere.

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“Young people many times feel that the employment available is not appropriate for them, they will have to work longer. They feel like the older population failed them,” said Raúl Figueroa, a demographer who specializes in mortality rates.

Many of those who left, like 33-year-old Karina Montañez, a pet groomer who has been living in Orlando since June 2016, are unsure they will come back unless they can match the economic conditions and quality of life they achieved stateside.

“I would say yes because of my family, because I have my family over there,” Montañez said. “But honestly, have I planned for a specific moment to come back? I don’t think so. In terms of business, the possibilities I have over here are much bigger.”

It’s not the first time residents of Puerto Rico relocated to the U.S. mainland and elsewhere in significant numbers in search of better jobs. A large exodus of Puerto Ricans occurred during the mid-20th century, when close to half a million islanders arrived in the United States in the 1950s.

But in that decade, Puerto Rican women were having an average of over 5 children each, according to an analysis from Mattei’s population research collective, thus replacing the population loss. In 2020, demographer Judith Rodríguez calculated with government data that Puerto Rican women were on average having less than one child each, among the lowest fertility rates in the world.

“The migration is very strongly concentrated in young people, many of whom are of reproductive age, and their children, who in the future are the ones who are going to have children,” said Figueroa, who added that since 2016, more people have been dying than are being born on the island. “If we continue with migration to the United States, the population will continue to go down. There is no way the population is going to increase naturally.”

Hurricanes and earthquakes have devastated the island in recent years, also accelerating the population decrease.

In 2017 Hurricane Maria, considered the largest disaster in the island’s modern history, killed thousands and destroyed critical infrastructure. In the following year, the island lost almost 4 percent of its residents, although studies show people did return. Then, in December 2019, an earthquake sequence began shaking southwest Puerto Rico, destroying homes and devastating a region with some of the island’s poorest towns, and displacing residents.

Today, the island’s population stands at 3.3 million people, down from 3.7 million in 2010. It’s higher than the 3.03 million estimate that the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico forecast.

Puerto Rico had similar population numbers in the 1970s, but the makeup of the population has changed. The distribution by age is different, the birth rate is much lower, and the population is rapidly aging — the median age on the island rose from 36 in 2008 to 43 in 2018, according to the Pew Research Center. A population that is over a median age of 30 is considered to be old, said Figueroa.

“Other countries have grown older much slower and they have had a more solid economy as that happens. Puerto Rico has not had that benefit. Unfortunately, no adjustments have been made, in terms of infrastructure and services, to ensure that the needs of an older population can be met,” Figueroa said.

‘Who will finance all of this?’

Dr. Mattei, the UPR professor who is part of the academic collective that studies population changes, painted in vivid detail with two other colleagues what Puerto Rico’s future could look like: smaller families, more aging seniors with fewer workers and services to support them, a dwindling tax base sustaining the government’s programs.

In Puerto Rico, where many people have historically grown up around large families and where culture is centered around deep-rooted familial bonds, nuclear and extended households will look different.

“If each woman eventually has only one child, the first thing it means is that each generation, the population size will reduce by half,” said Mattei, “those children won’t have siblings, won’t have uncles and aunts, won’t have cousins.”

And as more people have fewer children, there will be less young relatives and friends to support their aging counterparts who might need support in their living arrangements and shopping for daily staples.

“It completely changes support networks, family networks,” added Mattei.

The lack of children has ramifications for Puerto Rico beyond the family-level, having consequences for the island’s tax and worker pool.

“Who will finance all of this?” Dr. Luis Pericchi, one of Mattei’s colleagues and Director of the Center of Biostatistics and Bioinformatics at the University of Puerto Rico. “There will start to be a lack of workers in all the fields. That has negative feedback with the economy.”

Pericchi added that the fertility rate’s decline is likely here to stay, and that Puerto Rico has still not seen its female population delay childbearing as late as women have in other countries — a trend that, once shows up in full force in the population, will likely aggravate the issue.

Government services and private operations with lower income streams will have to shift to serve an aging population. One important sector the aging population will strain is healthcare. Puerto Rico’s doctors have a median age of more than 50, and a massive exodus has driven out thousands of doctors out of the island in search of better jobs. The island’s medical centers likely face a future of large healthcare costs as they treat an aging population, according to the experts.

“Hospitals are transforming. They are turning delivery rooms into geriatric wings,” Pericchi said.

He likened Puerto Rico’s “demographic crisis” to “a new Maria.”

“What problem can be bigger than one of its entire population? The family structure changes, the social structure changes, the economy is altered. What problem is more grave than that? However, there is no structured attention to the issue, not even at the discussion level,” said the mathematician.

The demographic specialists said that in the United States, there are interdisciplinary centers with a strong mathematical component that study population. But in Puerto Rico, Mattei and Pericchi said, there are no demographic studies center that operate across academic fields to analyze the problems the island faces.

‘Everyone is going to have opinions, but that is not enough. Opinions are opinions. We need strong, serious, scientific evaluations and maybe when we know them, we can attack the [problem,]” said Pericchi.

Through their academic collective that studies the island’s population changes, Pericchi, Mattei, and Angélica Rosario—a doctoral student who specializes in Puerto Rico’s population dynamics—hope to advocate for changes in the island’s public policy that might reverse or alter the population trends, such as immigration policies or socioeconomic strategies to repopulate the island. They also hope to train people and teach them the tools to understand these challenges.

“This situation, without doing anything, will not lead to its solution, but it will lead to its acceleration,” said Pericchi.

Some regional economies across jurisdictions in the United States have been able to reverse steep population declines through economic restructuring.

But in those cases, Mattei explained, that re-population has been through people who are not native through the area, raising questions about re-population strategies on an island where many locals are worried about being displaced because of a vulnerable economy and future natural disasters. There are also concerns among locals over laws that allow non-residents, many wealthy, to claim tax exemptions by claiming residency, and how those legislations could change population dynamics on the island.

As the academics consider how to battle the island’s population decline, many Puerto Ricans who have left, such as Rodríguez, grapple with their choice: Should they remain in the continental United States or return to the island?

Rodriguez worries about growing old in Puerto Rico, where she says the healthcare system might not be able to support her.

“I love my island: the spectacular geography, the warmth of its people and the culture. Those are elements that I value a lot,” she said. “[But] when I think about aging, I want to be in a place that can offer me the living conditions that I need. So I’m not very clear where I’m going to spend my old age.”