By Conor Sen
The news coming out of Puerto Rico — limited as it is with power and cell service out on most of the island — is terrible and demands far more of a media and government response than we’ve seen so far. Every effort should be made to get the people of Puerto Rico the resources they need to cope with this disaster.
The island faced large-scale challenges even before Hurricane Maria hit, with a shrinking population, crumbling infrastructure and a financial mess. We need to be realistic about what the future for Puerto Rico and its people looks like. We’re probably looking at hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans leaving the island for the mainland U.S. over the next several years, a scenario with significant implications for the island and the rest of the nation.
Puerto Ricans have been leaving for the mainland U.S. for decades. The island’s population shrunk by 2.2 percent in the 2000s, and has already fallen by 8.4 percent since 2010. While the northeastern U.S. has historically had the largest concentration of Puerto Ricans, increasingly migration is to the Southeast. A 2014 study from the Pew Research Center showed that about half of all Puerto Ricans moving from the island to the mainland were moving to the South. In 1980, New York had around 10 times as many Puerto Ricans as Florida did. Today, they’ve roughly achieved parity.
While every effort should be made to rebuild Puerto Rico and to modernize its long-neglected infrastructure, I share my colleague Tyler Cowen’s pessimism for the island’s long-term prospects. It’s over-indebted, its population is shrinking, and its young people have been leaving. Economically, financially and demographically, it would appear to combine the worst aspects of rural America’s demographics with the pension, debt and infrastructure woes of places like Chicago.
In theory, some of these problems are fixable. The island’s debts could be written down or bailed out. The federal government could invest tens or hundreds of billions of dollars to rebuild the island’s infrastructure and economy. The Jones Act, making trade to the island more costly than it needs to be, could be repealed. But this menu of policy prescriptions requires the kind of high-trust society with well-functioning institutions that we sadly lack at present.
While many Puerto Ricans will want to stay, or lack the resources to leave, we should be realistic about what shape the rebuilding process will take over the next several months. Electrical systems need wholesale reconstruction. Water systems were damaged. Agriculture is in ruins. Cell towers and power lines need to be rebuilt. And that’s to say nothing of roads, homes and schools. What Puerto Rico needs is a blank check of resources — political will, labor and money — in order to rebuild.
There’s a sad chance that the resources simply will not be found. The mainland should prepare for an influx of Puerto Ricans over the next several months and years. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans seeking to move to urban centers in the Southeast, the Mid-Atlantic and Boston are going to put pressure on housing markets already struggling to keep up with current demand. Employers, however, may get some relief as they struggle to find workers.
And since every story has a political angle these days, consider this. Since 2010, Pennsylvania’s Puerto Rican population has grown by 78,000. Donald Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 by only 44,000 voters. Since 2010, Florida’s Puerto Rican population has grown by 220,000. Trump won that state by 113,000 votes. If Democrats flip those two states in 2020 and every other state voted as it did in 2016, Democrats will win the presidency. Now imagine Pennsylvania takes in another 100,000 Puerto Ricans, and Florida takes in another 300,000 over the next few years, all of whom would be eligible voters.
Puerto Rico’s future has been irrevocably altered as a result of Hurricane Maria, and as its residents decide where to move forward with the rest of their lives. Perhaps the rest of the country’s future has changed as well.
Conor Sen is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a portfolio manager for New River Investments in Atlanta and has been a contributor to the Atlantic and Business Insider. Readers may email him at [email protected]