I am a big fan of HBO's drama The Leftovers based on a novel of the same name by Tom Perrota. In the show's mythos, 2 percent of all of the world's population vanished instantaneously without any explanation as to why or to where in an event called the Sudden Departure. The show's story takes place a few years later and centers on characters now coping with loss, pain, grief and fear.
The world in The Leftovers underwent a rapture but continues unredeemed by any following revelation or judgment. For those of us watching from Puerto Rico, the program hits close to home for reasons other than its acting, writing or production quality. Puerto Rico is currently facing a demographic rapture of its own and like the cast of The Leftovers, Puerto Ricans face an uncertain tribulation.
Puerto Ricans are Hispanic people with over 500 years of history. But unlike other Latin American countries, Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States acquired from Spain as spoils from the Spanish-American War of 1898.
Almost two decades later, Congress extended United States citizenship to all Puerto Ricans in 1917. Puerto Rico was authorized to draft its own territorial constitution in 1952 and was provided self-governing powers akin to those of a State of the Union. Puerto Ricans enjoy full United States citizenship like anyone born in any of the 50 States, so Puerto Ricans can travel and relocate freely to any part of the United States.
Puerto Rico's industrialization and economic development during the last half of the 20th century outpaced most, if not all, of Latin America. But during the early 2000s, Puerto Rico's economic foundations proved unsound or unreliable. Puerto Rico's economy has been in a steep decline for the past decade and its government is going bankrupt and facing a possible shutdown at the end of the year.
And the numbers reflect this stagnation way beyond trading prices for Puerto Rico Muni Bonds. The Bureau of Labor Statistics for the United States Department of Labor reported an 11.4 percent unemployment rate for September 2015. And in 2013 the World Bank reported that Puerto Rico's labor force participation rate was 42.6 percent. The United States Census Bureau estimates that 46 percent of the population in Puerto Rico lived below the Federal Poverty Line during 2014.
Many media and news outlets have covered ad nauseum Puerto Rico's economic woes, its $73 billion in public debt, the Commonwealth government's possible default and insolvency, and everything in between. Yet while economic and fiscal challenges can make life in the Caribbean island difficult, few have focused on the existential implications of Puerto Rico's demographic crisis and its life or death relationship to the economic and fiscal situation.
With economic conditions being dire, no one should be surprised that many Puerto Ricans have taken to the airport, instead of the streets. As Paul Krugman noted in his August 3, 2015 New York Times column discussing the similarities between Puerto Rico and other parts of the United States beaten bloody by globalization, "when job opportunities dry up, young, able bodied workers move elsewhere, while the least employable stay in place."
The rate of net outmigration from Puerto Rico to other parts of the United States from 2010-2014 is estimated at an average of 1.4 percent of the population per year and rising. The United States Census Bureau estimates that net outmigration during 2014 alone increased 31 percent from 2013 with a net sum of 64,000 Puerto Ricans, or 1.8 percent of the population, leaving the island in one year.
The rapid increase in net outmigration from Puerto Rico outpaces the local birthrate and return migration into the island. The United States Census Bureau estimates the total population of Puerto Rico in 2014 at 3,548,397. This amounts to a 4.76 percent drop from the 3,725,789 total population reported in the 2010 U.S. Census and a 7.52 percent drop from the 3,808,610 total population reported in the 2000 U.S. Census. Moreover, assuming the trend remained the same throughout 2015, Puerto Rico now has an estimated total population below the 3,522,037 reported in the 1990 U.S. Census.
Migration waves from Puerto Rico to other parts of the United States have been recurring episodes in Puerto Rico's history as United States territory. Large waves like the Great Migration of 1950 resulted in the relocation of hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans and the establishment of Puerto Rican enclaves in New York, Chicago, Boston and other urban areas throughout the United States. A key difference from the current state of affairs, however, is that past outmigration never stalled population growth in the island.
Now Puerto Rico is depopulating at an alarming rate, reducing the local tax and consumer base thereby hampering efforts towards any appreciable recovery in the island's economic and fiscal situation. In other words, who is going to pay bondholders if no one is there to foot the bill?
A game changer at the federal level is always possible, but recent the White House and Congress look very poised in their stasis on the matter. Meanwhile, the local government and private sectors are not in conditions to offer the opportunities, incentives or other benefits that could stall outmigration or boost population growth. So with the possibility of 20 percent of the population packing their bags and taking flight within the next 10 years, the Puerto Rican people seem willing to leave the homeland.
The basic premise behind The Leftovers is that the sudden disappearance of 2 percent of the population was such a traumatic occurrence that it caused deep personal distress and social turmoil. Puerto Ricans are not vanishing into thin air but they are leaving still at almost 2 percent per year.
What trauma (personal, cultural and economic) accompanies the aftermath of possibly losing 1/5 of the population in one decade? You can already start noticing the absence of people throughout many little things that isolated fail to reveal the true scale of the phenomenon. But like T.S. Eliot wrote in The Hollow Men: "This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper."