SAN JUAN: The number of Puerto Ricans who fled the island in 2015 equaled a record set the previous year amid an economic crisis that is suffocating the U.S. territory, officials announced Thursday.
About 64,000 Puerto Ricans left last year, matching the highest number reported in the past 11 years, according to the island's Institute of Statistics.
"This is worrisome," demographer Raul Figueroa said in a phone interview. "In economic terms, the workforce is shrinking. But the age is an even bigger concern. The elderly population has increased because so many young people are leaving."
He estimated that Puerto Rico's population is currently below 3.4 million, and that it could drop to less than 3.2 million in upcoming years, adding that the median age is 40 years old.
The exodus escalated in 2014, when officials reported a 31 percent increase in departures compared with the previous year. The vast majority of Puerto Ricans are settling in the U.S. mainland, leaving behind an islandfacing an uncertain future as a federal control board prepares to oversee the government's finances and help restructure a portion of the nearly $70 billion public debt load that the governor has said is unpayable.
The Institute of Statistics also announced that Puerto Rico's median household income stands at $18,626, dropping nearly 2 percent between 2014 and 2015. Officials also noted that 46 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
Alberto Velazquez-Estrada, the institute's statistical projects manager, said he is not surprised that nearly half a million Puerto Ricans have emigrated in the past 11 years.
"Certainly, the lack of job opportunities and quality of life among other factors, coupled with the abilityPuerto Ricans have to move between Puerto Rico and the United States, creates the ideal conditions for a migration wave," he said.
The exodus has led to a dwindling tax base, prompting the government in part to approve new taxes and increases in utility bills to help generate more revenue.
Many Puerto Ricans expect the federal control board to take additional action.
On Thursday, a federal task force that was created along with the federal control board as part of a U.S. rescue package said it was concerned about a lack of reliable data on Puerto Rico's economic, financial and fiscal situation. It also noted that federal laws and programs have affected the island's financial situation as well as led to changes in its population.
"Residents of Puerto Rico and their families face numerous challenges," the task force said.