I thought the water rationing was solely because of the drought, wholly unrelated to the debt problem.
Alan Yuhas in New York
Thursday 2 July 2015 07.00 EDT
Economic exodus means two-thirds of Puerto Ricans may soon live in US
The Caribbean territory, whose residents are US citizens, is groaning under $73bn debt forcing it to ration water, close schools and watch its health system collapse
Facing a crisis of monumental proportions at home, tens of thousands of people are fleeing a Caribbean island in search of a better life in the United States only to find hardship and struggle on American shores. Their stories sound like those of millions of migrants – poverty at home, where the economy lies in tatters – but they differ from millions of others: they’re already American.
Unable to pay its $73bn debt, Puerto Rico has begun rationing water, closing schools and watching its healthcare system collapse and 45% of its people living in poverty. Emigration to the mainland has accelerated in recent years, activists say, and data shows that from 2003 to 2013 there was a population swing of more than 1.5 million people.
“This new wave of immigration can be compared with the immigration in the 1930s and 40s,” said Edgardo González, coordinator of the Defenders of Puerto Rico, an activist group. The Great Depression and second world war spurred the so-called “Great Migration”, when tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans moved to New York every year for nearly two decades.
Now most Puerto Ricans are arriving in central Florida, González said, but many cannot find jobs or even housing. “Some might stay with family for a few weeks, but for those who don’t have family, people end up homeless because of the lack of services,” he said.
“People end up living in hotels, living in cars or on the street. Then you have people who are homeless with kids, who get in trouble with the law, and you have to get into it with childcare and welfare services.”
In particular, González said that professionals with higher degrees were leaving the island in search of work, draining Puerto Rico of the talent it needs to resuscitate its economy and healthcare sector.
Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States and Puerto Ricans enjoy US citizenship.
In New York, fears of the wave of immigration have seeped into the city’s sizable Puerto Rican communities. On Wednesday the Bronx borough president, Rubén Díaz Jr, warned on NPR that the surge would sap the city’s services, especially in the cash-strapped parts of his borough.
The Bronx is poorest of New York’s five boroughs, with almost 30% of its population living below the poverty line. Almost 300,000 Puerto Ricans live in Bronx County, more than any other in the country, according to 2010 data; Brooklyn’s Kings County and Orange County, Florida, follow at second and third.
“Puerto Rico continues to have people leave to the tune of 100 individuals on a daily basis,” said Díaz, who is himself of Puerto Rican descent. “We’re losing a doctor a day that is leaving the island and coming over here.
“The local governments here in the United States, we have to then absorb the added cost to our localities in order to provide services.”
Díaz said that his own family was struggling to cope: an uncle unable to receive quality healthcare, cousins who can’t find work and aunts who “haven’t seen a raise in their salary in decades”.
“This is an extremely dire situation,” he said.
He urged action by the federal government, saying Congress should give Puerto Rico the power to declare bankruptcy and restructure its debt. As a US territory, the semi-autonomous island does not have the same authorities that allow others to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, as Detroit did to cope with its own disastrous finances.
“We’re not asking for a bailout, we’re not asking for the federal government to give Puerto Rico a dime,” he said.
The White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, this week said that the Obama administration is not considering any form of bailout for the island.
Today, 60% of Puerto Ricans live in the States and 40% on the island according to a 2014 Pew report, with most moving to Florida. Cuny professors Edwin Meléndez and Carlos Vargas-Ramos predict that by 2020, it’s likely that two-thirds of Puerto Ricans will reside in US states.
Díaz also praised Puerto Rico’s governor, Alejandro García Padilla, for the “courageous” act of admitting this week that the island’s debts are “not payable” in their current form.
The island’s delegate in Congress, Pedro Pierluisi, has also called for lawmakers to address the island’s political status, and introduced a bill that would grant Puerto Rico the powers to declare public enterprises bankrupt.
Pierluisi himself cannot vote in the House of Representatives.
He has also called for statehood for the territory, writing in a letter to the New York Times: “No people have ever prospered while being treated unequally, and it is not reasonable to expect Puerto Rico to be the exception to that rule.”
But the problem is probably more intractable than simply bestowing statehood or bankruptcy powers on the territory, said María Enchautegui, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a research thinktank.
Chapter 9 authorities “would be only for municipal debt, which is very small in the whole of Puerto Rico”, Enchautegui said. “So I don’t think that is going to solve a lot of the problem.”
Enchautegui suggested that Puerto Rico should restructure its varied debts not just to cut losses but to overhaul the government. “While we are looking at what agencies to eliminate or change, we could actually make a more efficient government,” she said. Restructuring public-private arrangements, as with electrical companies and utilities, could also bring in precious revenues, she added.
Such changes would not require Congress’s intervention, although Washington would have to get involved to bring Puerto Rico’s Medicaid and Medicare systems to the same level as the rest of the states.
Enchautegui also noted that Puerto Rico had succeeded in some ways, most notably with its accessible and good higher education. She said Puerto Rico should try to use its growing diaspora as a resource rather than lament it as a drain.
“The diaspora is now more than 5 million people, most who keep relations with Puerto Rico, have family there they go and visit,” she said. “Those could be human resources, capital and knowledge that can bring back investments, businesses, networks.
“They left the island, that’s the way they have dealt with the crisis, but they are very connected to it.”