Recession in Puerto Rico Drives Middle-Class Professionals to South Florida

Frances Robles, Belleville (Illinois) News-Democrat, August 17, 2009

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Central and South Florida are increasingly becoming home to members of Puerto Rico’s middle class, who are fed up by an island wracked by inflation, unemployment and the perception of crime grown out of control.

The recession that recently struck Florida hit Puerto Rico first. It resulted in masses of people moving to Florida as first-time voters in a presidential election year, banking that the Sunshine State would provide new opportunities.

Sociologists say the wave of emigration could rival the 1950s exodus to New York, which helped reshape Manhattan’s political and social fabric. This time, the Puerto Ricans leaving the island are highly educated professionals whose departure both provides a safety valve to growing unemployment and threatens the island’s skilled work force.

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Census figures show at least 200,000 of Puerto Rico’s 4 million people moved to Florida from 2000 to 2006, including 14,000 to Broward County and about 8,000 to Miami-Dade. About half of Florida’s nearly 700,000 Puerto Ricans live in Central Florida, particularly the Orlando area.

But census figures do not reflect the wave that began two years ago, when a budget crisis forced the Puerto Rican government to shut down for several weeks. More than 70,000 people were temporarily furloughed, so it was not long before nurses, doctors and police officers joined the teachers and out-of-work public servants who headed for Florida.

Many of them found jobs before leaving Puerto Rico as recruiters from employers as varied as NASA, Disney World and the Baltimore Police Department went to Puerto Rico to find highly skilled bilingual labor. The shutdown was followed by an unprecedented increase in the sales tax to as high as 7 percent, which hit Puerto Rican wallets hard as a political crisis gripped the U.S. territory.

Then gas prices climbed, and people saw their electric bills reach as high as $1,000 a month. Government statistics show food prices have increased 12 percent this year, and housing 15 percent.

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Experts say it’s impossible to know exactly how many Puerto Ricans have arrived in Florida in the past two years. But government estimates show some 65,000 are leaving the island each year, said political analyst Luis Davila Colon.

University of Puerto Rico professor Jorge Duany, who co-authored a 2006 study of Puerto Rican migration patterns, said the island’s government has largely ignored the dilemma, because it offers a much-needed safety valve for an economy experts say shrank by 2 percent last year.

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Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce President Jose Julian Alvarez said the island has seen at least 55,000 manufacturing jobs go away in the past eight years, just after losing federal subsidies for corporations. Puerto Rico Development Bank statistics show the labor force of 1.3 million people shrank by 47,000 people last year alone.

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