“In the past year,” a UMass Amherst/WCVB survey asked last October, “have you contemplated moving from Massachusetts to another state?” Thirty-five percent of respondents answered yes. The question was repeated in another survey in April. By then the share of respondents thinking about leaving had climbed to 39 percent. When asked why, the most common reason given was to escape the high cost of living in the Bay State. Other reasons were concerns about high taxes and government policies.
Massachusetts has a serious problem: Too many of its people want to leave. Year in, year out, more Massachusetts residents migrate to other states than relocate here from other states. It’s a longstanding predicament, and it’s been getting worse: Between April 2020 and July 2022, nearly 111,000 residents moved out of Massachusetts — the highest out-migration level in 30 years. Only three other states — California, New York, and Illinois — shed more residents each year than Massachusetts.
This steady loss of population is reflected in the contraction of the state’s congressional delegation. In 1980, Massachusetts had 12 seats in the House of Representatives; now it has just nine. It’s reflected as well in the dwindling clout of the Bay State’s high-tech sector. From 2020 to 2023, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, and Washington added a combined 160,000 jobs in computer systems and related services; Massachusetts lost 2,200.
Most disturbing of all, perhaps, is that the exodus of so many Massachusetts residents has led to a startling depletion of wealth.
In the past decade, notes the Pioneer Institute in a new report, the amount of net income leaving Massachusetts each year with departing taxpayers grew almost fivefold, from more than $900 million in 2012 to $4.3 billion in 2021. All told, more than 142,000 Massachusetts taxpayers left the state over the course of the decade. The cumulative loss to the state’s tax base during those 10 years totaled $16.7 billion.
Who has been leaving? Based on 2021 IRS data, Pioneer’s report answers that question in two ways, by income category and by age group. The overwhelming majority of net out-migration from Massachusetts, more than 80 percent, was among individuals earning over $100,000 — and fully 60 percent had incomes above $200,000. The loss of tax filers in that income category has been especially acute since 2019.
When analyzed by age, by far the largest cohort leaving Massachusetts has been 26- to 34-year-olds. The IRS shows a net outflow — the total of residents departing minus newcomers entering — of more than 9,200 people in that age group in 2021.
Which should seriously worry anyone concerned for the Commonwealth’s well-being.
To begin with, the draining away of residents younger than 35 shrinks the talent pool when the state is already plagued by a labor shortage. That cohort “also represents future wealth and the foundation of the state’s future tax base,” Pioneer observes. “Tax revenue, economic contributions, and innovation will be constrained by the departure of younger members of the workforce. Not only will the state forgo these socioeconomic benefits now, but the losses will compound over three decades.”
In 2021 alone, the out-migration of individuals in the 26-to-34 group cost Massachusetts $930 million in taxable income. Only residents in the 55-to-64 bracket took more wealth with them when they left the state.
Can the trend be reversed?
People leave for all kinds of reasons, of course, and Massachusetts can do nothing about some of them. There will always be Bay State residents who want to relocate to a state with warmer winters or who move to be closer to children and grandchildren. Political leaders can’t do much to change that. Nor can they change the fact that working remotely has become a permanent feature of modern employment; people who were in Massachusetts only because of their job may now have the option to do that job from elsewhere.
What policymakers can do something about is the state’s tax burden.
During last year’s debate over the ballot issue to add a stiff tax surcharge on incomes above $1 million, opponents warned that the increase would accelerate the exodus of people and wealth out of state. It is unfortunate that the “millionaire’s tax” passed. Added to the Massachusetts estate tax, one of the most punitive in the nation, the vote meant that the Commonwealth took a big step back toward its old reputation as “Taxachusetts.” Worse, it did so at a time when Congress has limited the deductibility of state and local taxes to $10,000, which makes life in high-tax states more costly than before.
In most of the country, political leaders have worked assiduously to lower taxes. During the 2021-22 legislative cycle, 43 states reduced their tax burden. Massachusetts did the opposite. Is it any wonder that so many earners have been leaving?
Some progressives routinely deny that high tax rates drive residents away. During a GBH radio interview last month with Governor Maura Healey, Jim Braude — a longtime foe of tax relief — asked with obvious skepticism whether any wealthy Massachusetts residents had decided to move elsewhere because of the new millionaire’s tax. “Many,” the governor promptly replied, to Braude’s evident astonishment.
But what could be more obvious? When nearly 4 in 10 Massachusetts residents say they are thinking about leaving, it takes a willful blindness not to see that the state’s increasingly sharp tax bite is chomping down on itself. Every year, tens of thousands more residents give up on Massachusetts. The number moving away is now greater than it has been in decades. Sure, some are leaving for sun and beaches. But most heading for the exits aren’t looking for better weather.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit bit.ly/ArguableNewsletter.