Puerto Rico has a massive drainage problem. Close to 176,000 Boricuas left the Island from 2005 to 2010. In 2011 alone, Puerto Rico lost 76,000 citizens, of which 21,611 landed in Florida. An Island that boasted close to four million inhabitants in 2000, now finds itself holding close to half a million citizens less, making it the second jurisdiction in the U.S. with a net population loss in the last decade (Michigan is the other state that had a net loss). Additionally, its labor participation rate is dropping more every year, now hovering below 40%. Puerto Ricans, like any citizen of the United States, can simply pick up and leave to Florida, Illinois, Texas or New York (to mention a few) by simply buying an airline ticket. At a moment in which Puerto Rico needs to boost its economic growth, Governor Garcia Padilla needs to engage in serious plumbing repairs.
Puerto Rico’s exodus cannot be attributed to one issue in particular. Ever since the end of the (Pedro) Rosselló administration (1992-2000), and with it, the Clinton “boom years”, the end of Section 936 of the Tax Code which allowed for tax exemption for pharmaceuticals and manufacturing companies in Puerto Rico and the tech bubble burst, Puerto Rico’s economy began to drop. Former Governor Sila Calderon (2000-2004) rejected Rosselló’s platform (as they come from opposing parties) and froze all construction work initiated under his term. Given that construction is a strong industry in Puerto Rico, the first hit to the economy was delivered. During Calderon’s term, Boricuas began leaving to Florida and other states, but the flight was not yet drastic. It took Anibal Acevedo Vila’s term (2004-2008) to really close the deal. Acevedo-Vila suffered the rare political event in Puerto Rico known as a “divided government”. Much like the GOP’s battle with President Obama, the New Progressive Party made it their mission to block everything Acevedo-Vila offered. The political stalemate further dived the economy, culminating in the government shutdown in 2007, which many economists believe delivered a deadly blow to the already ill economy. During these eight years, crime began to increase, particularly homicides and drug related crimes.
Former governor Luis Fortuño came into power in 2008, promising to fix the economy and lower crime. However, he soon found a 3 billion dollar deficit left by his predecessor, forcing him to lay off over 20,000 public employees under the infamous “Law 7”. Fortuño was able to stabilize the economic free fall, but was unable to get it growing at a pace Puerto Ricans wanted to see. Crime also continued on the rise, falling just over a hundred gun related deaths short of California’s total gun-related death count for 2011.
Faced with a grim reality, Puerto Rican professionals are leaving the Island, despite being employed, for better salaries in the “United States” (because although P.R. is part of the U.S., we refer to the 50 states as a separate entity), lower crimes, public schools that actually work, and overall quality of life. According to a poll made by El Nuevo Día, 59% of those who leave the Island were employed in the Island, with 45% of those attributing their exit to the prevailing crime rate.
Governor Garcia Padilla, and Puerto Rico for that matter, cannot afford to continue losing Puerto Ricans at the rate that has marked the past few years. The Government must not only stop the exodus (by growing the economy and halting the crime rate) but must entice people to move back to Puerto Rico. An option to consider would be to give preferential tax rates to those who have worked at least one year in the “United States” if they were to return to work in Puerto Rico. Given that Puerto Ricans (in the Island) do not pay federal tax, a measure like this would compensate for the lower salaries that they would receive here in the Island.
Additionally, the Government needs to entice citizens other than Puerto Ricans to move into the Island. Puerto Rico would greatly benefit from fellow Latinos and mainland “Americans” moving to the Island and forming part of the business community.
Puerto Rico’s brain drain is a priority that needs to be tackled with the same urgency as the economy and crime. Valuable talent is being lost at the rate of a Jet Blue air fare. Unless Puerto Rico acts, a full recovery might be decades away.