Greece’s monetary and fiscal issues have overshadowed a similar situation right in America’s own back yard: Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico’s governor recently called the commonwealth’s $72 billion in debt “unpayable” and this has made Puerto Rico’s bondholders more nervous than they already were. Puerto Rico’s bonds were previously downgraded to junk by the credit rating agencies and there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding Puerto Rico’s ability to honor its obligations to both bond holders and its own workers, as the commonwealth’s pension system is drastically underfunded. A major default would likely impact residents of the mainland U.S., since according to Morningstar most of the debt is owned by U.S. mutual funds, hedge funds, and mainland Americans.
So how did Puerto Rico get into this situation? Like many other places, including Greece and several U.S. cities, the government of Puerto Rico routinely spent more than it collected in revenue and then borrowed to fill the gap as shown in the graph below from Puerto Rico’s Office of Management and Budget. Over a recent 13 year period (2000 – 2012) Puerto Rico ran a deficit each year and accrued $23 billion in debt.
Puerto Rico has a lot in common with many struggling cities in the U.S. that followed a similar fiscal path, such as a high unemployment rate of 12.4%, a shrinking labor force, stagnant or declining median household income, population flight, and falling house prices. Only 46.1% of the population 16 and over was in the labor force in 2012 (compared to an average of nearly 64% in the US in 2012) and the population declined by 4.8% from 2010 to 2014. It is difficult to raise enough revenue to fund basic government services when less than half the population is employed and the most able-bodied workers are leaving the country.
Like other U.S. cities and states, Puerto Rico receives intergovernmental grants from the federal government. As I have explained before, these grants reduce the incentives for a local government to get its fiscal house in order and misallocate resources from relatively responsible, growing areas to less responsible, shrinking areas. As an example, since 1975 Puerto Rico has received nearly $2.7 billion in Community Development Block Grants (CDBG). San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, has received over $900 million. The graph below shows the total amount of CDBGs awarded to the major cities of Puerto Rico from 1975 – 2014.
As shown in the graph San Juan has received the bulk of the grant dollars. The graph below shows the amount by year for various years between 1980 and 2014 for San Juan and Puerto Rico as a whole plotted on the left vertical axis (bar graphs). On the right vertical axis is the amount of CDBG dollars per capita (line graphs). San Juan is in orange and Puerto Rico is in blue.
San Juan has consistently received more dollars per capita than the other areas of Puerto Rico. Both total dollars and dollars per capita have been declining since 1980, which is when the CDBG program was near its peak funding level. As part of the 2009 Recovery Act, San Juan received an additional $2.8 million dollars and Puerto Rico as a country received another $5.9 million on top of the $32 million already provided by the program (not shown on the graph).
It’s hard to look at all of this redistribution and not consider whether it did any good. After all, $2.7 billion later Puerto Rico’s economy is struggling and their fiscal situation looks grim. Grant dollars from programs like the CDBG program consistently fail to make a lasting impact on the recipient’s economy. There are structural problems holding Puerto Rico’s economy back, such as the Jones Act, which increases the costs of goods on the island by restricting intra-U.S.-shipping to U.S. ships, and the enforcement of the U.S. minimum wage, which is a significant cost to employers in a place where the median wage is much lower than on the mainland. Intergovernmental grants and transfers do nothing to solve these underlying structural problems. But despite this reality, millions of dollars are spent every year with no lasting benefit.