Puerto Rico residents continued their exodus from the island over the past year during tough economic times, with the local population shrinking by 19,099 residents, or 0.51 percent, the biggest percentage loss by far of any U.S. jurisdiction, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The population loss was due to migration to the U.S., with a net 35,469 residents lost to out-migration, while island births outpaced deaths by 16,370 during the 15-month period covered by the new Census data, which runs April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2011.
The drop-more than double the average annual population loss reflected in the 2010 Census for the previous decade- is part of the first new U.S. population estimate released by the bureau since the 2010 Census, which showed the island's population had declined by 82,821 people, or 2.2 percent, over the past decade.
The population dive is bad news for Puerto Rico for several reasons. The island will receive less federal funding in many programs, and it means less demand for housing, cars and a wide range of services, which will only add to the challenge of trying to lift Puerto Rico's economy from its prolonged economic downturn.
The wide-scale migration, moreover, will add to the aging of the island's population, and many observers worry Puerto Rico is losing among its brightest and best-trained professionals, who are leaving to seek better opportunities stateside.
"A decrease in population is the hallmark of a sick society, where people do not have enough faith in the future to increase family size or to commit to live for the long term," said Sergio Marxuach, policy director at the Center for the New Economy. "It is also negative for economic growth, since there will be fewer people working, earning money, investing, saving and consuming."
Back in October, an Ipsos poll commissioned by WAPA-TV found 45 percent of islanders have considered leaving Puerto Rico in search of a better quality of life, with the majority of those setting their sights on the States. One-quarter (25 percent) of those who have considered a move from the island have taken concrete steps to do so, the poll found.
Projected over the entire population, the poll results indicate some 1.5 million people would consider leaving the island, while 419,000 of those have at least started a plan to move.
Marxuach noted that the latest data is based on a sample, which has a significantly larger margin of error than the decennial Census.
However, he said the finding that the island continues to lose population at a significant rate is a worrisome trend.
A few years ago, Puerto Rico had more population than 24 states but is now estimated to have more population than 21. At one time, statehood would have meant six representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives; at current population levels, Puerto Rico would get five.
Puerto Rico's population was pegged at 3,725,789 in the 2010 Census, down from the 3,808,610 registered in the 2000 Census. It marked the first time the local population had declined between census counts.
The 2010 Census also showed there were 4.7 million Puerto Ricans living in the States, which was the first time more Puerto Ricans lived stateside than on the island. Only one state, Michigan, registered a drop in population in the 2010 Census, dipping 0.6 percent.
While the 19,099 drop over the 15-month period ending July 2011 is more than double the average annual population loss reflected in the 2010 Census, most observers believe migration really began to pick up in 2006 with the onset of Puerto Rico's prolonged economic recession. Besides Puerto Rico, three other states lost population during that period: Rhode Island, which lost 1,300 residents, or 0.12 percent of its population; Michigan, which lost 7,400 residents or 0.08%; and Maine, which lost 200 or 0.01 percent.
The new Census estimates show the lowest U.S. growth rate since the mid-1940s, with the nation's population increasing by 2.8 million, or 0.92 percent, over the 15-month period. Texas gained more people than any other state between April 1, 2010, and July 1, 2011 (529,000), followed by California (438,000), Florida (256,000), Georgia (128,000) and North Carolina (121,000), according to the Census. Combined, these five states accounted for slightly more than half the nation's total population growth.
"The nation's overall growth rate is now at its lowest point since before the baby boom," said Census Bureau Director Robert Groves. "Our nation is constantly changing, and these estimates provide us with our first measure of how much each state has grown or declined in total population since Census Day 2010."
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