‘Less population means less economic activity,’ expert says

Suggests gov’t must develop effective labor plan to incentivize demographic growth

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @pete_r_correa

Special to The Star

With initial data from the 2020 U.S. Census revealing earlier this week that Puerto Rico has witnessed a demographic decline of around 466,000 people in the past 10 years, a demographer told the STAR on Thursday that the 11.8% decrease in the island’s population could translate to smaller allocations of federal funds and more austerity measures to the detriment of government services.

During an exclusive online interview, Alexis Santos Lozada, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Pennsylvania State University, said the Census data should be seen as a “red flag” because, he said, it proves the island is not experiencing the conditions necessary to promote growth.

“Those who are leaving are mostly working-age population, people who are between [the ages of] 25 and 64, moving to states like Florida, Texas, with similar pockets of Puerto Ricans emerging in places as far away as California, although pockets of Puerto Ricans have been emerging everywhere over the last 100 years,” Santos Lozada said. “If these younger people are leaving the island, what you essentially have is an island that has a concentrated percentage among older populations … populations that are probably reaching the age of retirement who then depend on pensions.”

As for the demographic data, Santos Lozada said the island’s demographic decline is a trend “that has continued at an accelerating pace” and that experts have been observing since the previous U.S. Census reported a 2% drop. Therefore, he said, the incoming data raises concerns as the reason for some 430,000 residents migrating from the island is mostly associated with economic circumstances such as searching for better job opportunities in the midst of an economic crisis.

When the STAR asked if Puerto Rico could remain sustainable as more trained professionals leave the island for better job opportunities, Santos Lozada said “we need to see the patterns, and the patterns have been indicating that less population means less economic activity.”

“Certainly, we have a system in Puerto Rico that trains them [professionals] well, and those people get good job offers in the United States,” he said. “We don’t have a barrier to migration, we don’t need a visa to go to work, so whenever you’re sitting at your home in Puerto Rico or considering to leave and get some experience, the decision becomes really easy if you have any [number of] jobs available [in the mainland U.S.] to allow yourself to sustain your individual needs on a daily basis.”

“Puerto Rico has a lot of people who could help with the redevelopment process through academia, through government services, through public services, through developing community initiatives, but I think the issue here goes beyond the Census data,” Santos Lozada added as he told the STAR that the climate that austerity measures are creating in the island’s public and private labor sectors is such that job offers are not competitive with what the professional sector in the U.S. mainland has to offer.

“In a way, you have people asking you to become a junior-level or entry-level professional with minimum wage, but they’re requiring you to have two years of experience and a bachelor’s degree; that does not compete with job offers outside with better benefits and better conditions,” he said. “You have Puerto Rican people around the world doing amazing things that they haven’t been allowed to do on the island, and certainly, the future is still showing the same signs it showed in the last decade, which led us to this population decline.”

Santos Lozada further noted that other economic implications such as having a smaller tax base, fewer contributions, and a drop in production amid the budget tightening imposed by the federal Financial Oversight and Management Board will lead the island to a more difficult scenario, pointing out that “the goals of the adjustment plan for debt repayment is something that we need to start talking about in more detail.”

“I study trends and patterns, and one thing I know is that the trend and the pattern of the oversight board are to establish austerity measures to try and meet specific [budget objectives] and requirements to meet specific goals,” Santos Lozada said. “If trends do continue as they have in the last couple of years, then we’re probably going to be looking at more austerity measures like cutting budgets for the University [of Puerto Rico] and the education system.”

“Until today, the government hasn’t defined what an essential service is, so by not doing that, they have not been able to protect services required for the population that are considered essential,” the demographer added.

He said such services must be considered in order to begin mitigating the island’s population decline. As for how the government should define essential services, Santos Lozada told the STAR that they are “services that the country cannot live without and for which they need to keep an adequate level of funding.”

“There are activities such as Centro Médico [Río Piedras Medical Center], which is the only trauma center in Puerto Rico and is financed only by the government,” he said. “So there is a way to say this is an essential service and if we cut the funding from it, we’re not going to have any other trauma hospital on the island.”

“If you think about traumatic injuries, each second counts,” Santos Lozada added. “You cannot simply put somebody in a plane to another place, which is an unsustainable strategy anyway.”

When asked what the executive and legislative branches of the island government should be doing to address the issue, Pointing out that living in Puerto Rico is “expensive,” Santos Lozada said the government must focus on creating jobs that provide an affordable wage that helps islanders cover their needs.

He also said a better labor reform that promotes job security is recommended, as the government in the past decade “took away a lot of protections from the working population.”

“One thing that I’ve been able to conclude from my studies is that Puerto Ricans go where there are jobs, so if we want to keep our population there and incentivize returning [to the island], we must develop an economic project that leads to good jobs, but permanent jobs,” the demographer said.

For more of the interview, you can watch yesterday’s episode of Lunchtime with The STAR on the newspaper’s Facebook page. Don’t miss another new episode next Thursday.

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