Myth 1: Wealthy people pack up and move when their taxes increase.
Fact 1: High taxes generally do not cause the wealthy to move.
As governors and state legislatures consider tax increases to fix state fiscal issues, concern over the potential flight of wealthy residents has surfaced again. For a given state, wealthy residents provide both a greater proportion of that state’s income tax revenue and a disproportionate share of the charitable donations made within that state. According to the Survey of Consumer Finances, sponsored by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, on a national basis households with a net worth of at least $1 million, headed by a person age 60 or older, comprised 4 percent of all households but donated approximately 25 percent of all household charitable contributions made in 2007 (the most recent year for which data is available). It is obviously in each state’s interest to keep these wealthy residents around.
A number of studies in the economic literature explore the impact of taxes on the migration behavior of households in the United States. What these papers have generally shown is that taxes have little impact on cross-state migration. Instead, the migration impacts of unemployment are much greater. Overall, the results suggest that taxes do not cause out-migration, but they do influence the choice of destination for some migrating households, such as retirees.
The above chart uses data from a study by the Boston College Center on Wealth and Philanthropy to illustrate the effect of a tax increase on New Jersey residents making greater than $500,000 per year. Following the tax increase, the authors conservatively estimate that net out‐migration in this income bracket rose by about 350 out of 44,000 people, or by about 0.8 percent of New Jersey’s taxpayers making more than half a million dollars a year. This is a small, but noticeable effect. However, the study also claims that the rate of out-migration by higher income earners was in line with the out-migration rate of people who weren’t subject to the tax. In other words, the behavior of the rich is consistent with the behavior of the rest of the population.
According to a regional household survey conducted by the Metropolitan Philadelphia Indicators Project at Temple University in 2004, just 27 percent of respondents in Philadelphia cited tax concerns as a reason they moved to their current location. Compare this to the 59 percent of survey respondents who said their residential choice was motivated by housing costs, the 47 percent who were motivated by good schools, and the 44 percent who wanted to be closer to family and friends. On the list of reasons for moving, tax concerns ranked ninth.
When respondents were asked whether they had ever considered moving in order to pay lower taxes, 73 percent of Philadelphia residents said no. Within the subsection of respondents living in affluent suburbs, the number climbed to 83 percent. (Interestingly, those who had considered moving because of tax concerns were more likely to move within the next two years than others in the group surveyed.) Similarly, a 2003 study in the Journal of Gerontology found that while tax burdens are the most important fiscal characteristic affecting the location choice of retirement-age individuals, factors such as climate, general economic conditions, and housing costs are still much more important.
Why? Because while location matters, taxes are one of the factors that define how desirable a location is. Among the factors that keep people in high-tax places are jobs, family, friends, and city amenities (few New Yorkers would agree to pack up and move to North Dakota no matter how low the taxes there might be).
In addition, there is the fact that moving is usually a costly
hassle, and most people’s social lives are grounded in their
community and their workplace. Relocating often results in a longer
commute for those still employed, causes disruption to the children
who are still in school, and often means giving up on your social
network and friends.
Presumably there is a level of taxation that will prompt more high-income individuals to move or change their behavior radically. However, it is also likely that the wealthy already have fairly well-developed tax sheltering strategies in place.
The general conclusion is that moderate tax increases on the rich, even if no neighboring jurisdictions follow suit, is unlikely to lead to much in the way of emigration.
That being said there are other reasons not increase taxes on the very rich. Higher taxes do slow down the rate of business development and job growth. In turn, high taxes reduce the number of wealthy people a given state may attract.
Myth 2: Blue states are big government states and red states are small government states.