Puerto Rico – a U.S. territory – has $72 billion dollars in outstanding debt, which is dangerously high in a country with a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of only $103.1 billion. The Puerto Rican government failed to pay creditors in August and this was viewed as a default by the credit rating agency Moody’s, which had already downgraded Puerto Rico’s bonds to junk status earlier this year. The Obama administration has proposed allowing Puerto Rico to declare bankruptcy, which would allow it to negotiate with creditors and eliminate some of its debt. Currently only municipalities – not states or territories – are allowed to declare bankruptcy under U.S. law. Several former Obama administration officials have come out in favor of the plan, including former Budget Director Peter Orszag and former Director of the National Economic Council Larry Summers. Others are warning that bankruptcy is not a cure-all and that more structural reforms need to take place. Many of these pundits have pointed out that Puerto Rico’s labor market is a mess and that people are leaving the country in droves. Since 2010 over 200,000 people have migrated from Puerto Rico, decreasing its population to just over 3.5 million. This steady loss of the tax base has increased the debt burden on those remaining and has made it harder for Puerto Rico to get out of debt.
To get a sense of Puerto Rico’s situation, the figure below shows the poverty rate of Puerto Rico along with that of three US states that will be used throughout this post as a means of comparison: California (wealthy state), Ohio (medium-wealth state), and Mississippi (low-wealth state). All the data are 1-year ACS data from American FactFinder.
The poverty rate in Puerto Rico is very high compared to these states. Mississippi’s poverty rate is high by US standards and was approximately 22% in 2014, but Puerto Rico’s dwarfed it at over 45%. Assisting Puerto Rico with their immediate debt problem will do little to fix this issue.
A government requires taxes in order to provide services, and taxes are primarily collected from people who work in the regular economy via income taxes. A small labor force with relatively few employed workers makes it difficult for a county to raises taxes to provide services and pay off debt. Puerto Rico has a very low labor force participation (LFP) rate relative to mainland US states and a very low employment rate. The graphs below plot Puerto Rico’s LFP rate and employment rate along with the rates of California, Mississippi, and Ohio.
As shown in the figures, Puerto Rico’s employment rate and LFP rate are far below the rates of the US states including one of the poorest states, Mississippi. In 2014 less than 45% of Puerto Rico’s 16 and over population was in the labor force and only about 35% of the 16 and over population was employed. In Mississippi the LFP rate was 58% while the employment rate was 52%. Additionally, the employment rate fell in Puerto Rico from 2010-14 while it rose in each of the other three states. So at a time when the labor market was improving on the mainland things were getting worse in Puerto Rico.
An educated labor force is an important input in the production process and it is especially important for generating innovation and entrepreneurship. The figure below shows the percent of people 25 and over in each area that have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Puerto Rico has a relatively educated labor force compared to Mississippi, though it trails Ohio and California. The percentage also increased over this time period, though it appears to have stabilized after 2012 while continuing to grow in the other states.
Puerto Rico has nice beaches and weather, so a high percentage of educated people over the age of 25 may simply be due to a high percentage of educated retirees residing in Puerto Rico to take advantage of its geographic amenities. The next figure shows the percentage of 25 to 44 year olds with a bachelor’s degree or higher. I examined this age group to see if the somewhat surprising percentage of people with a bachelor’s degree or higher in Puerto Rico is being driven by educated older workers and retirees who are less likely to help reinvigorate the Puerto Rican economy going forward.
As shown in the graph, Puerto Rico actually fares better when looking at the 25 – 44 age group, especially from 2010-12. In 2012 Puerto Rico had a higher percentage of educated people in this age group than Ohio.
Since then, however, Puerto Rico’s percentage declined slightly while Ohio’s rose, along with Mississippi’s and California’s. The decline in Puerto Rico was driven by a decline in the percentage of people 35 to 44 with a bachelor’s or higher as shown in the next figure below.
The percentage of 35 to 44 year olds with a bachelor’s or advanced degree fell from 32% in 2012 to 29.4% in 2014 while it rose in the other three states. This is evidence that educated people in their prime earning years left the territory during this period, most likely to work in the US where there are more opportunities and wages are higher. This “bright flight” is a bad sign for Puerto Rico’s economy.
One of the reforms that many believe will help Puerto Rico is an exemption from compliance with federal minimum wage laws. Workers in Puerto Rico are far less productive than in the US, and thus a $7.25 minimum wage has a large effect on employment. Businesses cannot afford to pay low-skill workers in Puerto Rico such a high wage because the workers simply do not produce enough value to justify it. The graph below shows the median individual yearly income in each area divided by the full time federal minimum wage income of $15,080.
As shown in the graph, Puerto Rico’s ratio was the highest by a substantial amount. The yearly income from earning the minimum wage was about 80% of the yearly median income in Puerto Rico over this period, while it was only about 40% in Mississippi and less in Ohio and California. By this measure, California’s minimum wage would need to be $23.82 – which is equal to $49,546 per year – to equal the ratio in Puerto Rico. California’s actual minimum wage is $9 and it’s scheduled to increase to $10 in 2016. I don’t think there’s a single economist who would argue that more than doubling the minimum wage in California would have no effect on employment.
The preceding figures do not paint a rosy picture of Puerto Rico: Its poverty rate is high and trending up, less than half of the people over 16 are in the labor force and only about a third are actually employed, educated people appear to be leaving the country, and the minimum wage is a severe hindrance on hiring. Any effort by the federal government to help Puerto Rico needs to take these problems into account. Ultimately the Puerto Rican government needs to be enabled and encouraged to institute reforms that will help grow Puerto Rico’s economy. Without fundamental reforms that increase economic opportunity in Puerto Rico people will continue to leave, further weakening the commonwealth’s economy and making additional defaults more likely.