Puerto Rican Lament: An Economy and a Population of Risk

By Joseph Rodriguez, Photographer


Puerto Rico has more than its share to lament during the last eight years of global economic turbulence: $70 billion in debt, a 15.4 percent unemployment rate, a soaring cost of living, pervasive crime, crumbling schools and a worrisome exodus of professionals and middle-class Puerto Ricans who have moved to places like Florida and Texas.

Puerto Rico, about 1,000 miles from Miami, has long been poor. Its per capita income is around $15,200, half that of Mississippi, the poorest state. On the island, 37  percent of all households receive food stamps; in Mississippi, the total is 22 percent.

But the extended recession has hit the middle-class hardest of all. Jobs are still scarce, pension benefits are shrinking and budgets continue to tighten forcing thousands to flee to the mainland for jobs.

In the winter of 2015 I self financed my first trip to San Juan to begin this story, I interviewed several families like the 56 year old retired school teacher, Jorge Cardona from Caguas who is losing his home. He had invested his and his wife’s 401K savings to buy a modest house. Due the austerity demanded by the Puerto Rican government he was forced into early retirement. Then his wife’s salary was cut by 20 percent. “Today we pay over $500 in electricity and what was eight dollars a month for my water bill is now $180. Everything went up.”

Jose Jeriem, 9 years old, is a promising young boxer. His parents Jose Antonio Crespo and wife Joan Martinez both encourage their son’s dream of becoming a professional.

“Gas is costly,” says Jose Sr., “the food also. It is a lot of sacrifice but we are focused on Jose because we think it is good for him to keep on boxing.” Mr. Cardona worries about the new tax being proposed and how it will affect his family and their daily expenses. “So far we have not considered leaving the island. Things may get hard, but we are not leaving.”

Puerto Rico’s population has declined precipitously, outpacing American states. In 2011 and 2012, the drop was about 1 percent. From July 2012 to July 2013, it declined again by 1 percent, or nearly 36,000 people. That is more than seven times the drop in West Virginia, the state with the steepest population losses on the mainland. 

Coupled with a falling birthrate, the decline is raising worries about how Puerto Rico will thrive with a rapidly aging population and such a large share of jobless residents. Of the island’s 3.67 million people, only one million work in the formal economy. The island has one of the lowest labor participation rates in the world, with only 41.3 percent of working-age Puerto Ricans in jobs; one in four works for the government.

Puerto Rico's Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla has recently signed into law a bill increasing the U.S. territory's sales tax from 7 percent to 11.5 percent. It is scheduled to go into effect July 1, 2015.

My documentary project would be to interview and photograph many families and its social institutions like schools, churches and places of business throughout the island of Puerto Rico to gather the stories behind the statistics for publication in print and online.

As a documentary photographer interested in the human condition and a Puerto Rican New Yorker I have published several books but my first project (and the most personal) , Spanish Harlem (1985-1990) was published as a National Geographic cover story in May 1990, “Growing Up In East Harlem” and then later as a book, Spanish Harlem was published by the National Museum of American Art Smithsonian Institution in 1994.

I believe I can bring a unique perspective to this project

I would like to continue my project with the focus on the Puerto Rican family on the island who continues to struggle daily.

Joseph Rodriguez 2015