Costa Ricans are a small population to begin with, but now there are even fewer of them than previously thought. At the current growth rate, their numbers could one day start to shrink.
For years, expert projections had put the population of this country—the size of West Virginia—at 4.5 million and higher. But the new national census—the first in 11 years—counted just 4,301,712 people, according to preliminary data released this week by Costa Rica’s Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Censos (National Institute of Statistics and Censuses, or INEC).
Annual population growth from 1984 to 2000—the last two census years—averaged 2.8 percent. But between 2000 and this year’s census, this rate plummeted to 1.1 percent.
In an interview, Costa Rica’s communications minister, Roberto Gallardo, said he was very surprised by the figure. Jorge Barquero, a leading demography expert at the Universidad de Costa Rica, said that, pending on the final results of the census, his team may have to rework years of projections and analysis that had been based on previous INEC studies.
What are some reasons for this decline? For one, Costa Rican couples are having fewer and fewer children. The average household dropped from 5.6 inhabitants in 1973 to 3.5 in 2011.
Today Costa Rica has an average of 1.82 children born to each woman, which is below the 2.1 “replacement rate” needed to keep the population steady. Experts are eyeing the rate to see if it falls to levels below 1.5 that raised alarm in some European countries.
As more Costa Rican women gain higher education and enter the workforce—or rise to the presidency like Laura Chinchilla—they are increasingly putting careers first.
Other factors are at play. Analysts say that hard economic times could be delaying a couple’s decision to start or expand a family. On the other hand, economic growth and social and cultural influences from Costa Rica’s close regional allies could also be helping reshape families and customs. There is a veritable sociological field day to be had in the data to come.
Preliminary figures also suggest population growth was slower in the San José province, which also contains the capital city, and occurred at a faster pace along some of the coastal areas popular with North American and European retirees.
The INEC plans to publish further reports based on its findings throughout 2012. Aspects that will surely raise a few more eyebrows could include figures on Costa Rica’s aging population and a spike in emigration in a country traditional for welcoming migrants.
As the data is released, it will likely be a wakeup call for the country’s leaders and institutions like hospitals and pension companiens that are already suffering financially from trying to serve a longer-living population. Better tax collection will be vital but a spotlight could be shone on the emerging privately run options. Reforms to immigration policies could also take on greater importance.
The numbers already map out a complex web for a small Costa Rica—in both size and population. Perhaps these are signs of the times for a developing country in the throes of becoming, well, developed.
Alex Leff is a correspondent for Reuters and GlobalPost based in San José, Costa Rica. He is also a contributing blogger to AQ Online.