More Americans live in Puerto Rico than 21 states (and other things to know)

Story highlights

It's home to more than 3.4 million people -- a population larger than 21 states, including Iowa, Arkansas and Nevada.

Its gross domestic product would rank 37th if Puerto Rico were a state

But a broad 44 percent of its residents live in poverty, more than double the highest US state

Washington CNN  — 

When Hurricane Maria barreled across Puerto Rico, devastating buildings with wind and flooding and wiping out the power infrastructure, the safety and livelihood of more than 3.4 million Americans hung in the balance.

But has Puerto Rico’s lack of statehood caused the federal government and broader American public to overlook its fellow citizens?

President Donald Trump pledged to visit the island next Tuesday, saying the island was “literally destroyed” and making more disaster assistance dollars available. He congratulated the federal government on its response, saying “I think we’ve done a really good job” and citing praise from local government officials.

But the main airport on the island is barely functioning and shipments of aid are struggling to keep up with the millions there who need food and shelter. House Speaker Paul Ryan called the devastation on the island a “humanitarian crisis,” promising that the victims will get the same help that people in Texas and Florida received.

In many ways, like population and gross domestic product, Puerto Rico appears like just any other middle-of-the-road state that may blend in with many you’d see on the American mainland. But its economic problems left it extremely vulnerable to a storm like this.

Here’s a look at how Puerto Rico ranks up against the 50 states.

A state without statehood?

Less than a three-hour flight from Miami, the island of just more than 5,000 square miles is smaller than every American state except for Delaware and Rhode Island. Still, in many ways, Puerto Rico is very similar to a US state.

It’s home to more than 3.4 million people, according to the US Census Bureau – a population larger than 21 states, including Iowa, Arkansas and Nevada. That number has declined in recent years as more residents move to the US mainland amid economic woes on the island.

The Puerto Rico population has steadily declined over the last decade from 3.8 million people. Just in the last year, according to the US Census Bureau, the population declined by a broad 1.8 percentage points. (Only six states had declining populations from 2015 to 2016, but none of the US states’ populations were declining as quickly as Puerto Rico’s; West Virginia being the worst at just 0.5 points.)

Puerto Rico’s gross domestic product – at $103 billion, according to the World Bank – would rank 37th if Puerto Rico were a state, ahead of places like New Mexico, South Dakota and New Hampshire, according to data from the US Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Puerto Rico came under US control more than a century ago, and Puerto Ricans have voted a half-dozen times on statehood – most recently a low-turnout nonbinding vote in June where residents overwhelmingly voted to become to 51st state. Ultimately, however, Congress must pass a law admitting them to the union.

For the time being, residents of the island are natural-born citizens just like anyone born in a US state, but they don’t have a voting member in Congress or votes in the Electoral College, which elects the president. Like the 50 states, Puerto Rico has hits own constitution, governor and legislature.

The economic vulnerability of Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico has stark economic woes that separate it from most of the 50 states – and make the island particularly vulnerable to a large storm that wipes out infrastructure and devastates personal property.

A broad 44% of its residents live in poverty, according to the US Census Bureau. That’s more than double the 21% of residents in Mississippi and Louisiana who live in poverty – the highest in the United States.

The island also has been plagued by debt and a declining credit rating amid an economic recession there. Trump had tweeted earlier that Puerto Rico was in “deep trouble” after the storm, in part because its electrical grid was “in terrible shape” and they have “billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks.”

Indeed, the median household income on the island is just $19,350, according to the US Census Bureau – less than half the median household income of those in Mississippi and Louisiana, again at the bottom of the list.

The median income for the entire United States is more than triple the island’s number, and the median income in the most wealthy states in the country hit nearly four times as much money.

Unemployment in Puerto Rico also remains high at 10.1% – worse than any state and more than double the national unemployment rate in the United States of 4.4%. Still, it’s been a slightly improvement over the last several years after it reached a peak of 17.0% in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico last week as a Category 4 storm, the largest storm to hit the US territory in nearly a century.