Puerto Rico’s slow-motion economic crisis skidded to a new low last week when both Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s downgraded its debt to junk status, brushing aside a series of austerity measures taken by the new governor, including increasing taxes and rebalancing pensions. But that is only the latest in a sharp decline leading to widespread fears about Puerto Rico’s future. In the past eight years, Puerto Rico’s ticker tape of woes has stretched unabated: $70 billion in debt, a 15.4 percent unemployment rate, a soaring cost of living, pervasive crime, crumbling schools and a worrisome exodus of professionals and middle-class Puerto Ricans who have moved to places like Florida and Texas.
Puerto Rico, about 1,000 miles from Miami, has long been poor. Its per capita income is around $15,200, half that of Mississippi, the poorest state. Thirty-seven percent of all households receive food stamps; in Mississippi, the total is 22 percent.
But the extended recession has hit the middle-class hardest of all, economists said. Jobs are still scarce, pension benefits for some are shrinking and budgets continue to tighten. Even many people with paychecks have chosen simply to parlay their United States citizenship into a new life on the mainland.
Puerto Rico’s drop in population has far outpaced that of American states. In 2011 and 2012, the population fell by nearly 1 percent, according to census figures. From July 2012 to July 2013, it declined again by 1 percent, or about 36,000 people. That is more than seven times the drop in West Virginia, the state with the steepest population losses.
To be sure, a recent report from Pew Research shows that there already more Puerto Ricans on the mainland (4.9 million) than on the island (3.7 million). Still, those on the island represent a population larger than 23 of the current states in the U.S. The problems on the island are thus not small ones and it is not clear how this will play out.