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Op-Ed: Population of Puerto Rico [Handle with care]

“I saw the future …. It’s wooooooonderful..there are no [Puerto Ricans]” this is a direct quote found in the leaked chats (#RickyLeaks) between the person who served as governor of Puerto Rico and his closest collaborators.

This improper comment caught my attention due to the demography that underlies what this person claimed to have seen.

Professionals who specialize in the demography of Puerto Rico have wondered whether the economic dynamics will continue to push Puerto Ricans to the United States, and if so to what extent will the population continue decreasing.

If the past is any indicator, the number of people who stay in Puerto Rico are closely related to the employment conditions in the island (See previous work). This is important because the feasibility of fiscal plans and current agreements between bondholders and the central government hinge on the existence of a population base that is able to contribute with their taxes to the public coffers.
Following Hurricane María, some people produced population forecasts that were based on faulty assumptions, which led to a series of population scenarios that “aided” decision-making processes by the government of Puerto Rico and the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico.

These scenarios made it not only to a listening session by the Oversight Board; it also made it to the fiscal plan. I was one of the first demographers to call for caution in the projections and forecasting of the population of Puerto Rico, especially following a disaster like Hurricane María.

Why is that? Because events like Hurricane María are shocks, these have effects that cannot be forecasted accurately based on previous data. I also objected to the production of forecasts for the Oversight Board and have asked for caution when decisions are made for a Puerto Rico that will never exists.

At the same time, I have proposed the option of closely monitoring the population of Puerto Rico on a monthly basis with a model that is straightforward and can better inform government decisions and aid in the public policy decision-making process (See report here).

It is unreal to assume we can project the population of Puerto Rico when the recovery from Hurricane María continues, and while the island adjusts to the political reality brought about by #RickyLeaks.

Puerto Rico is experiencing a social transformation, and Congress is hinting it will act to amend the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act. Due to all this, it is irresponsible to provide any forecast of projection to the Oversight Board and to the government of Puerto Rico.

Any person that engages in this behavior is truly doing a disservice to the government, the Oversight Board, bondholders, the profession and to the people of Puerto Rico who carry the burden of the fiscal plans and the agreements reached under PROMESA

At this point, the future written in the leaked chats may be true, but with the uncertainty brought about by Hurricane María and “El Verano del 19” there is simply no way of knowing. If the population declines at a faster pace, then the fiscal plans will need to be further adjusted.

Author Alexis R. Santos, PhD, is assistant professor at the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Penn State University. In 2013, he worked as principal investigator at the Statistics Institute.

Only when the Census 2020 results are released, we will know the impact of these events. Only then, we will have an idea on what the future holds for Puerto Rico, and for all of those who care about the future of the archipelago.



  1. Heidie Calero August 6, 2019

    Though Alexis may be right regarding final results of the 2020 Census will confirm the demographic trend in Puerto Rico, it is also true those results will not be available until at least 2022!. Hence, we cannot stand still and forecasts will have to rely on demographic scenarios rather than projections. Perhaps, his proposed monthly model may assist with these scenarios. Caution must be taken regarding vital statistics on births and deaths as published by the Department of Health and passenger movement thru the airport. Some adjustments would be warranted.

    1. Alexis R. Santos August 6, 2019

      Hello Heidie,

      Sadly, this is the world we are living. Puerto Rico has experienced TWO unforeseen events that cannot be incorporated into population projections or forecasts.

      Professionals, and those who sell themselves as professionals, need to employ caution when they produce population projections and forecasts. I am not criticizing to pontificate about this, I am also saying we need to monitor the situation. But at this moment the dust hasn’t settled and just one example of how these projections are wrong in January and February 2018 the population bounced back and the projections and forecasts didn’t contemplate that.

      Those who have produce projections for PR have been irresponsible, and have done a disservice to the people of Puerto Rico who at the end of the day will carry the heavy burden of the agreements that are signed under PROMESA.

      We should discuss this at a sort of forum or panel at some point.



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