The population of Puerto Rico, which had been growing since at least the 1700s, has drifted downward in recent years. The decrease from 3.8 million in 2000 to 3.6 million in 2013 represents the first sustained decline since U.S. census-taking began in the early 20th century. The Census Bureau projects that the island’s population will be about 3 million in 2050 following decades of slow decline.10
The island’s economic crisis may be driving thousands of Puerto Ricans to seek opportunities on the mainland, or to return there. In addition, the potential for population growth on the island is weakened by persistently low fertility rates (Mora, Davila and Rodriguez, 2015).
The vast majority of the island’s population—96% in 2012—consists of Hispanics of Puerto Rican origin, most of whom were born on the island. Most Puerto Ricans who left the island in recent years also were born there. However, the smaller mainland-born population declined more steeply from 2000 to 2012 (20%) than the population of island-born Puerto Ricans (2%).11
Most Puerto Ricans on the island—89%—say they speak Spanish at home. But 20% of island Puerto Ricans say they are highly proficient in English—that is, they either speak only English at home or speak English very well. That compares with 83% of mainland Puerto Ricans who say they are proficient in English.
Economics and Education
Median household income and annual personal earnings of Puerto Ricans on the island are markedly lower than for Puerto Ricans on the mainland. In 2012, for example, earnings of mainland Puerto Ricans ($28,750) were more than 80% higher than for Puerto Ricans on the island ($16,000).12 Median household income on the island was slightly lower in 2012 than in 2000.
Puerto Rican island residents also are more likely to be living in poverty (45%) than mainland Puerto Ricans (27%). However, Puerto Ricans on the island are more likely to be homeowners than those on the mainland—70% of households are owner-occupied, compared with 38% for stateside Puerto Ricans.
The lower economic standing of Puerto Ricans on the island, compared with those on the mainland, reflects both the longstanding weakness of the island’s economy and a fiscal crisis that erupted in 2006.
Puerto Ricans on the island are both more and less educated than all Puerto Ricans on the mainland. A higher share has at least a bachelor’s degree (24% vs. 17%). And a somewhat higher share did not complete high school (27% vs. 23%). However, island-born Puerto Ricans living stateside are less educated than are Puerto Ricans who live on the island. For example, while 24% of Puerto Ricans on the island have at least a bachelor’s degree, 15% of island-born Puerto Ricans living stateside have one.
A 2012 Federal Reserve Bank of New York report on Puerto Rico (Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 2012) said the island economy has been stagnant since the 1970s, with a stubbornly high unemployment rate that has been roughly double that on the U.S. mainland for decades. The island’s June unemployment rate, 13.1%, compares with 6.1% for the U.S. mainland.13
The Federal Reserve report also cited Puerto Rico’s labor force participation rate as among the world’s lowest. In 2011, only 41% of the population was in the workforce, which the report said was 20 points lower than the labor force participation rate among all U.S. residents on the mainland.
The report also noted that transfer payments, especially food stamps and disability payments, account for a large share of personal income on the island—roughly 40%, more than double the share on the U.S. mainland among all U.S. residents. The availability of these benefits, as well as a large underground economy, may discourage people from joining the workforce, the report said. Other researchers have cited the island’s perennially high poverty rate (Mora, Davila and Rodriguez, 2015).
The island-specific problems included the end in 2006 to longstanding Puerto Rican government corporate tax breaks, which resulted in the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs. Responding to a budget deficit, island officials imposed a sales tax on island residents for the first time in 2006, which had a disproportionate impact on low-to-middle-income residents. The economic problems led to layoffs of government workers, especially the less educated. Government employment on the island fell by a reported 14.3% between 2006 and 2011. (Mora, Davila and Rodriguez, 2014 and 2015).
The island’s economy is a factor in its population loss, but the island’s growth also has been held back by a declining rate of natural increase, which is the number of births minus the number of deaths.
In 2013, the island’s preliminary birth rate was 10.8 per thousand people, compared with 12.5 for the mainland U.S. The island’s birth rate was 13.4 in 2004, and it decreased in each year but one since then, according to statistics included in a 2013 report to the governor by the Puerto Rico Planning Board. The number of births on the island, 39,000 in 2013 preliminary data, has declined by a quarter since 2004.
Meanwhile, according to the same report, there were 30,000 deaths in Puerto Rico in 2013, about the same number as in 2004, when the island’s population was 6% higher. In 2004, there were 21,000 more births than deaths, but in 2013, that had declined to 9,000 more births than deaths.