Puerto Ricans have left the financially troubled island for the U.S. mainland this decade in their largest numbers since the Great Migration after World War II, citing job-related reasons above all others.
U.S. Census Bureau data show that 144,000 more people left the island for the mainland than the other way around from mid-2010 to 2013, a larger gap between emigrants and migrants than during the entire decades of the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s. This escalated loss of migrants fueled the island’s first sustained population decline in its history as a U.S. territory, even as the stateside Puerto Rican population grew briskly.
The search for economic opportunity is the most commonly given explanation for moving by island-born Puerto Ricans who relocated to the mainland from 2006 to 2013, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.1 A plurality (42%) gave job-related reasons for moving stateside, compared with 38% who gave family-related reasons. Among all immigrants from foreign countries who migrated over the same time period, a similar share gave job-related reasons (41%), while 29% said they migrated for family reasons. Mexican-b0rn immigrants were even more likely to cite job-related reasons (62%), while 25% cited family reasons.
Puerto Ricans who arrived from the island since 2000 are different from earlier waves of Puerto Rican migrants. For example, recent migrants are less likely than earlier migrants were to settle in traditional Northeast communities and more likely to live in the South, especially in Florida. More recent Puerto Rican arrivals from the island are also less well off than earlier migrants, with lower household incomes and a greater likelihood of living in poverty.
Most migrants from the island were born there. But among the recent migration wave, the departures of mainland-born Puerto Ricans have played a disproportionate role in the island’s population loss. Overall, mainland-born Puerto Ricans make up 4% of Puerto Ricans on the island, yet from 2000 to 2012, fully a third of the net loss of Hispanic Puerto Ricans on the island was due to departures of mainland-born Puerto Ricans.
The departures of island-born Puerto Ricans have contributed to an uptick in the number of island-born Puerto Ricans living stateside, to 1.4 million in 2012, up from 1.3 million in 2000. The island born, however, are a smaller group than the faster-growing mainland-born Puerto Ricans, who numbered 3.4 million in 2012, up from 2 million in 2000.2
As the island population has dwindled and the mainland population has grown, the number of stateside Puerto Ricans reached a record 4.9 million in 2012, and since at least 2006 has exceeded the number of Puerto Ricans on the island (3.5 million in 2012). Meanwhile, the overall population in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, including both Hispanics and non-Hispanics, declined to 3.6 million in 2013, according to U.S. Census Bureau population estimates.3
Puerto Ricans on the U.S. Mainland
On the mainland, Puerto Ricans are the second largest Hispanic origin group (Brown and Patten, 2014), following Mexicans (34 million in 2012) and ahead of Cubans (2 million) and Salvadorans (2 million). Compared with other U.S. Hispanics, Puerto Ricans overall are somewhat worse off on several indicators of well-being. They have lower median household incomes and a lower homeownership rate, and are more likely to be poor. However, Puerto Ricans overall (especially those born on the mainland) have higher education levels than other U.S. Hispanics.
The overall numbers for the U.S. Puerto Rican population, though, mask substantial differences in the growth and demographic profiles of those born on the mainland versus those born on the island. The growth in the stateside Puerto Rican population has been driven mainly by mainland-born Puerto Ricans, whose numbers rose 67% from 2000 to 2012, compared with 11% for island-born Puerto Ricans during that period.
Mainland-born Puerto Ricans are younger and have higher household incomes, and their children or elderly are less likely to be in poverty. They are more likely to have attended college than their island-born counterparts.
The stateside Puerto Rican origin population once was very highly concentrated in the Northeast, especially New York, but now is more widely dispersed. About half (52%) of Puerto Ricans lived in the Northeast in 2012, compared with three-quarters (74%) who did so in 1980. The population in other regions of the U.S. has grown more rapidly—most notably in the South, which housed less than 10% of the Puerto Rican population in 1980 and now is home to 30%.
Puerto Ricans born on the mainland and island are about equally likely to live in the Northeast, but island-born Puerto Ricans are more likely to live in the South (37% did in 2012, compared with 27% of mainland-born Puerto Ricans.). Mainland-born Puerto Ricans are somewhat more likely to live in the West (10% to 4%). Similar shares of each group live in the Midwest (10% of the mainland born and 8% of the island born).
The South—particularly Florida—has been the top regional destination in recent years for Puerto Ricans moving from the island to the mainland and for Puerto Ricans relocating from other regions within the U.S. However, New York has been the single biggest state magnet for migrants: According to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, among Puerto Ricans between 2006-2012, 31% of moves from the island to the mainland and 20% of moves from one state to another state were to the Empire State.
Puerto Ricans on the Island
As U.S. citizens, people born in Puerto Rico can move to the 50 states or District of Columbia without restrictions, and there is a long Puerto Rican tradition of back-and-forth migration between the island and mainland.
However, the gap between the number of departures and arrivals has widened in recent years, according to U.S. Census Bureau data that indicate a growing net loss of migrants. That loss, as well as the island’s relatively low birth rate, has produced its recent population decline.
The island’s total population (including Hispanics and non-Hispanics) decreased by about 200,000 people from 2000 to 2013, with about two-thirds of Puerto Rican municipalities having lost population during those years (see maps). The Census Bureau projects the island’s population loss will continue gradually through at least 2050, when about 3 million people will live there.4
About a third of all people born on Puerto Rico—34% in 2013, according to data from the United Nations and U.S. Census Bureau—now live on the mainland.5 That share has increased since 1990, when it was 30%. By another estimate, the proportion of people ages 16 and older born in Puerto Rico who live on the U.S. mainland rose to 34% in 2011 compared with 30.1% in 2006 (Mora, Davila and Rodriguez, 2014).
Historic and Recent Population Patterns
Measuring Migration from Puerto Rico to the Mainland
One challenge in comparing current migration from Puerto Rico with that of the great migration wave of the 1950s and 1960s is a shortage of reliable data. In previous decades, estimates were made mainly using figures for airline passenger traffic between the island and mainland. However, U.S. Census Bureau researchers have concluded that this method produced estimates that were too high (Christenson, 2001).
Using passenger-traffic data, the Census Bureau had estimated that from 1980 to 1990, 288,163 more people left Puerto Rico for the mainland than arrived from there. Using a new method based on data from the Census Bureau and Immigration and Naturalization Service (now Department of Homeland Security), the bureau in 2001 lowered that estimate to 126,465. The bureau also estimated that from 1990 to 2000, the island lost 111,336 more people to the mainland than it gained. For 2000 to 2010, the bureau estimated Puerto Rico had a net loss of 192,000 people younger than 65 (Bhaskar et al, 2013). More recent Census Bureau estimates put the net loss for all age groups at 144,000 for 2010 to 2013.
Migration from the island was relatively low during the 1970s; even using the passenger-traffic method, it was less than 27,000 (Duany, 2003). Therefore, recent migration from the island is the highest since at least the 1960s.
Puerto Rico’s recent population downturn reverses a general pattern of growth on the island since at least the 1700s, as documented by Spanish and U.S. Census Bureau data. The United States won control of Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898; the first U.S. census taken there, in 1910, counted more than 1.1 million residents. By 1990, the population had more than tripled, to 3.5 million, and peaked at 4 million in 2009. But by 2013, the island’s population had diminished to 3.6 million.6
The years since 2000 have seen the largest wave of migration from Puerto Rico since the “Great Migration” in the 1950s and 1960s (Rodríguez Ayuso, Santana and Santiago, 2013; see text box). According to Census Bureau researchers, the island had a net loss to the mainland of 192,000 migrants younger than 65 for the years from the 2000 census to the 2010 census (Bhaskar et al, 2013). From July 2010 to July 2013, about 144,000 more people of all ages left the island for the mainland than the other way around, according to Census Bureau population estimates. (Most but not all were Hispanics of Puerto Rican origin.)
The Island’s Economic Crisis
The onset of an economic crisis in 2006 that weakened the already-listless Puerto Rican economy likely played a role in the island’s accelerated population decline. More recent migrants to the mainland have been found to be less educated than those who remain on the island and more likely to hold less skilled jobs (Mora, Davila and Rodriguez, 2014).
About The Term “Puerto Rican”
When the term “Puerto Ricans” is used in this report, it usually means people who self-identify as Hispanics of Puerto Rican origin; most statistics and analysis included here are about this group. Sometimes, “Puerto Ricans” is used to refer to the total population of the island of Puerto Rico, in which case that is clearly stated. However, the two groups are quite similar. As of 2012, Hispanics of Puerto Rican origin made up 96% of the population of the island of Puerto Rico.
Some Census Bureau statistics about the island used in this report are only available for the total population, and not specifically for Hispanics of Puerto Rican origin. They include the 2013 population (not yet released for Hispanics of Puerto Rican origin at the time this report was published), as well as net migration statistics (departures from the island minus arrivals). In addition, counts for Hispanics of Puerto Rican origin on the island are not available before 2000 because the Hispanic-origin question was not asked on the island census until then.
According to a 2012 report on the Puerto Rican economy by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, “Puerto Rico’s economic progress has stalled: the Island has been operating below its potential for some time and the competitiveness of the economy continues to deteriorate.” The report cited persistently high unemployment and a low labor force participation rate, as well as heavy reliance on transfer payments such as food stamps (Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 2012).
The island’s recent economic crisis was fueled both by the overall U.S. recession and factors unique to the island. These included an end to longstanding Puerto Rican government corporate tax breaks in 2006, which led to business shutdowns and public- and private-sector layoffs. More recently, the three major ratings agencies downgraded Puerto Rico’s debt to junk status this year, citing its long history of economic weakness (New York Times, 2014). The island’s debt burden began to grow after government expenses began outstripping revenues in the late 1990s (Federal Reserve, 2012).
Still, the 2012 Federal Reserve Bank of New York report also pointed to strengths in the island’s economy, such as improving levels of schooling and a bilingual workforce. The island also benefits from ties to the U.S. and the easy access of island residents to the mainland.
This report mainly analyzes the demographic and economic characteristics of Hispanics of Puerto Rican origin living in the 50 U.S. states and District of Columbia, including comparisons of those born on the mainland and island, as well as characteristics of Hispanics of Puerto Rican origin living in Puerto Rico. It compares these various groups with each other and with other U.S. Hispanics. In addition, the report examines characteristics of recent migrants from Puerto Rico to the mainland and compares them with earlier migrants. Demographic analysis is based mainly on tabulations from the Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey and the 2012 Puerto Rico Community Survey.
About This Report
This report explores the demographic and economic characteristics of Hispanics of Puerto Rican origin, both on the island of Puerto Rico and on the U.S. mainland. It also analyzes characteristics of recent migrants from the island to the mainland and compares them with those of previous waves of migrants. The data in this report come from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, Puerto Rican Community Survey, Current Population Survey, decennial censuses and annual population estimates.
This report is a collaborative effort based on the input and analysis of the following individuals on the staff of the Pew Research Center. Editorial guidance came from Director of Hispanic Research Mark Hugo Lopez. D’Vera Cohn, senior writer, wrote the report’s overview and demographic chapters, based mainly on analysis by Eileen Patten, research analyst, who also prepared most of its charts and tables. Danielle Cuddington, research assistant, assembled data for the Puerto Rico maps that are in this report and online. The authors thank Jeffrey S. Passel, senior demographer, for his expertise on data use. The authors also thank Edwin Melendez of Hunter College and participants at the American Society of Hispanic Economists’ session “The Puerto Rican Economy, Migration and Employment Outcomes” at the 2014 Western Economic Association conference for comments on a previous version of the report. Anna Brown, research assistant, number-checked the report and charts; Molly Rohal, communications associate, copy-edited the report. Find related reports from the Pew Research Center online at pewresearch.org/hispanic.
A Note on Terminology
The terms “Latino” and “Hispanic” are used interchangeably in this report.
“Puerto Rican,” unless otherwise specified, refers to those who self-identify as Hispanics of Puerto Rican origin, either because they were born in Puerto Rico or trace their family ancestry there.
“U.S. mainland” or “mainland” or “stateside” refer to the 50 states (including Alaska and Hawaii) and the District of Columbia. “Island” refers to Puerto Rico.