San Juan Knocking on Hampden County’s Door

Amid all the coverage of the presidential election, Brexit, multiple shootings, and the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Europe and Syria, another big story is unfolding in Puerto Rico. For those of you who need a brief reminder about the island and its relationship to the US:


Puerto Rico came into “possession” of the United States as a product of the Spanish-American war, and also contributed to the legend of Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders (with his famous ride up San Juan Hill). Unlike Hawaii, which achieved statehood in 1959, Puerto Rico has remained a territory, even though a 2012 referendum showed residents supported initiating the statehood process. Congress has yet to act on the results of the referendum.

There are some advantages to being a territory of the United States instead of a state, including an advantageous personal income tax rate (zero, for many). However, one of the distinct disadvantages is that they are not allowed to declare bankruptcy like a state or municipality can. This leaves them with few options in terms of paying down their $70 billion debt.

How did the island of 3.4 million people accrue a debt of $70 billion? In short, it was access to easy credit and a tenaciously bad economy that created this economic nightmare (read this primer by the New York Times for more information, if you’re curious). And now we stand just weeks away from a major debt payment deadline of $2 billion. Without congressional action, it is unlikely the island will be able to make the payment and will default, which is bad news for everyone.

They’re Not Immigrants

Unsurprisingly, many Puerto Ricans are choosing to leave the island for greener pastures (I probably would, too). The island’s population has been declining for sometime now, from a high of 3.8 million in 2000 to about 3.4 million people today. That’s around 400,000 people who left the island, mostly for the mainland.

As a local blogger Rational Urbanism pointed out in a recent post, it’s worth remembering that Puerto Ricans are our fellow Americans – not immigrants. Just like Oklahoma farmers in the dust bowl, Puerto Ricans are leaving one part of the country for another in the hopes of a brighter future. And given the fact that the Pioneer Valley has such a large Puerto Rican population already, I have started to wonder if we’re going to see an even larger influx of Puerto Rican newcomers in the near future (especially if the debt crisis isn’t resolved).

Census Tract map showing percentage of the population with Puerto Rican origins. Source: 2013 American Community Survey

Assuming that is the trend, then Springfield and Holyoke should expect an increase in the percentage of residents with limited English proficiency, and probably an increase households that need supportive services like Section 8 vouchers, food stamps, heating assistance, etc.

If Congress continues to kick the can down the road on the Puerto Rican debt crisis, then it is local communities and, to a lesser extent, states that will have to pick up the slack in supporting those who abandon the island. In general, we can expect those with the least economic means to be the ones to pull up stake and move – just like the Irish 150 years before them. It would serve Hampden County well, and Springfield and Holyoke in particular, to anticipate this potential demographic surge and plan accordingly.


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