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The most recent population estimates of the Census establish that Puerto Rico gained 340 inhabitants in fiscal year 2019. (GFR Media)
The most recent population estimates of the Census establish that Puerto Rico gained 340 inhabitants in fiscal year 2019. (GFR Media)

The 2019 Census population estimates show that, for the first time in at least 15 years, Puerto Rico´s population increased and migration declined, a fact that reflects the economy is improving as a result of the island's reconstruction process and that Puerto Ricans who left the island after the 2017 hurricanes are returning, said different demography and economics experts consulted by El Nuevo Día.

Puerto Rico’s population increased by 340 people last fiscal year.  This represents only 0.01 percent of the total population. However, this is a significant difference since out-migration increased to 131,932 the previous year (2017-2018) and that since 2010 the Puerto Rican population has decreased -on average- by 1.7 percent annually.

"The economy began to grow as a result of the island´s reconstruction process, and that is a factor that keeps people here. When the economy grows, migration slows down. And since many people left in the previous fiscal year, this may be part of the return movement. Those are the hypotheses that I think can be considered at the moment," said economist and director of the Census Information Center at the University of Puerto Rico in Cayey, José Caraballo Cueto.

"The drop in unemployment seems to confirm these latest figures, which show that there are fewer economically active people looking for work, and those would generally be the first to leave the island," said demographer Judith Rodríguez.

According to data from the Planning Board, during fiscal year 2019, the number of jobs available on the island remained positive in at least three of the quarters. Similarly,  the unemployment rate  -which measures the share of workers who don´t have a job but are actively looking for work- remained at historically low levels for Puerto Rico.

Meanwhile, the Fiscal Agency & Financial Advisory Authority (FAFAA) estimated that in the second quarter of fiscal year 2019 alone, the Puerto Rican economy received some $1.531 billion due to unspecified reconstruction initiatives.

"The factor that most influences the migration is employment. If it goes down, migration increases, and if it goes up, migration declines," the economist said.

However, it is not clear yet whether this decline in migration would remain in the coming years or if it will return to levels similar to those registered before Hurricane María struck the island.

Caraballo Cueto recalled that in 2012, the economy saw a slight improvement and that migration dropped the following year. However, when the economy returned to negative territory, migration continued its previous trend.

"It is not necessarily something that will continue. We have to see what happens with the reconstruction process and theeconomic model necessary” to stop migration or to have more people returning, said the economist.

And this involves certain factors which are not in the hands of Puerto Ricans. The current fiscal plan estimated that Puerto Rico's economy would receive about $83.044 billion for reconstruction until 2032. About 83 percent of those funds would come through programs under the federal Department of Housing and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The release of these funds has been slower than expected, partly due to President Donald Trump administration´s alleged concern about those funds ending up in the pockets of corrupt Puerto Rican government officials.

Data review

These new Census population estimates come amid a review of intercensal data that had the effect of reducing Puerto Rico's population estimates each year since 2011.

Rodríguez explained that this review is a regular process intended to correct methodological deficiencies. He said that when estimates deviate from the results of the ten-year census, the numbers tend to be far from reality.

"I wouldn't say this ends with the population loss. We have to see if this is a new pattern or if it repeats now in 2020 when the decennial census, which is not an estimate," the demographer said.