Millionaire Migration Claims Fall Flat in the Media


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CTJ’s critique of claims that wealthy New Yorkers are fleeing the state’s so-called “millionaires’ tax” was publicized by two media outlets this week.  Similar claims being made in Connecticut and Rhode Island were also shot down in the media.

In last week’s Digest, CTJ pointed out numerous distortions in the Partnership for New York’s claims that wealthy New Yorkers were fleeing as a result of a recent tax increase on high-income earners.  (The Fiscal Policy Institute also issued a detailed rebuttal). 

For starters, the Partnership erroneously claimed that a “9.4 percent decrease in the state's taxpayers who earn $1 million or more” occurred between 2007 and 2009.  But the data it used (but failed to cite) actually show a 9.4% drop in New Yorkers with wealth exceeding $1 million.  Since New York’s income tax obviously applies to income — not wealth — this is an important distinction. 

The Partnership has since revised its report to correct this mistake, but it continues to ignore a much more important one: according to the same dataset, every state in the country saw its number of wealthy taxpayers decline between 2007 and 2009 (due to the recession) and 43 states experienced declines exceeding New York’s 9.4% drop.  In fact, Phoenix International – the firm that released the data – made very clear in its 2009 press release that the U.S. as a whole saw its millionaire population decline by nearly 14%.  So it’s a little odd, to say the least, that the Partnership would interpret New York’s 9.4% rate of decline as providing any evidence that could be useful in its crusade against taxing high-income earners.

Fortunately, Robert Frank at the Wall Street Journal’s Wealth Report quickly publicized CTJ’s analysis, and labeled the Partnership’s migration claims a “myth.”  Frank also followed up with the Partnership’s CEO, who when confronted with the data problems described above retreated by saying: “It’s a very difficult thing to measure… We get a lot of it anecdotally.”

Crain’s New York Business similarly picked up on the CTJ analysis, ultimately declaring that “the nationwide decline suggests that New York lost millionaires primarily because New Yorkers made less money and saw their property values drop during the recession, not because they moved to other states.” 

Crain’s does err, however, in claiming that the data might partially reflect the fact that “New Yorkers could have left the state in mid-2009 and filed 2009 tax returns as residents of their new states.”  The 2009 data in question was actually released in early July 2009, and was left unchanged in the September 2010 update.  It is exceedingly unlikely that a dataset released just two months after the May 2009 enactment of New York’s “millionaires’ tax” could have captured the effects of any tax-induced wealth flight.

In addition to beating back ridiculous claims in New York, the WSJ’s Wealth Report also recently debunked similar claims being made in Connecticut by the Connecticut Policy Institute.  The story is a familiar one:

“How do we know why or even if high-earners moved out? It is possible that some previously high earners simply fell below the $1 million-dollar-a-year mark because their incomes fluctuated. In the land of hedge funds, this seems to be just as likely as people moving to Florida. It also is unclear whether the population of high-earners in Connecticut is aging and simply moved to warmer, more golf-friendly climes...The report doesn’t break down the destinations. Still, it says many go to Florida and New York. Florida, of course, has no state income tax. But New York state has a top tax rate of 8.97% and New York City’s top rate is 3.876%. Combined that is nearly twice as high as Connecticut’s tax. If the rich decide where to live based on taxes, why would they be moving to a higher-tax city? Perhaps because the quality of their life matters as much or more than the quantity of their taxes—up to a point, of course.”

Finally, Rhode Island claims of wealth flight ran into similar resistance in the media when Politifact took a lengthy look at the Ocean State Policy Research Institute’s (OSPRI) migration claims, and ultimately found them to be “false.” 

OSPRI’s report attempts to show that “the most significant driver of out-migration [from Rhode Island] is the estate tax.”  But as Politifact notes, “IRS data cited by OSPRI shows that Florida was increasingly attractive to Rhode Island taxpayers in the years when it had an estate tax. The flow slacked off significantly when the [Florida estate] tax was eliminated. That runs contrary to the trend OSPRI claims to have proven.” 

Moreover, Politifact points out that even the conservative Tax Foundation — hardly a big fan of the estate tax — hasn’t jumped onto the migration bandwagon: “Kail Padquitt, staff economist for The Tax Foundation … said he hasn’t seen any proof that the prospect of paying estate taxes drives people to move.”  We certainly haven’t either.

Thank you for visiting Tax Justice Blog. CTJ and ITEP staff will soon retire this domain. But ITEP staff are still blogging! You can find the same level of insight and analysis and select Tax Justice Blog archives at our new blog, http://www.justtaxesblog.org/

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