Debate the data: are millionaires leaving New Jersey in large numbers?

A new report suggests some millionaires have left New Jersey:

New Jersey lost roughly 10,000 millionaire households, but those affluent families who remain still account for 7 percent of the whole state, the researchers said…

A high tax rate for top earners may have led to some migration out of the state, according to David Thompson, the lead researcher.

By losing those 10,000 millionaire households, the Garden State returns to third, where it was ranked from 2010 through 2012. Since the last report, Connecticut lost only 1,000 millionaire households, as it vaulted to the second spot, the group said.

And alternative interpretations:

“If millionaires were truly trying to flee NJ’s top income tax rate, we probably would have lost a lot more when the rates were higher,” Whiten said. “But during the 2000s NJ almost doubled the number of tax filers above $500K at a time when the tax rate was increased on them, twice.”Wealth has been reported leaving the Garden State before, however. In 2010, a Boston College team found that in a five-year period some $70 billion in total wealth left for other parts of the U.S.

Last year, a report by the Morristown-based Regent Atlantic wealth management firm released a report entitled “Exodus on the Parkway” that claimed so-called “tax migration” began in 2004, with the state’s passage of the “millionaire’s tax.” The report found that a couple with an income of $650,000 who moved to Pennsylvania would save some $21,000 per year in taxes, adding up to $1.65 million over 25 years, if invested. Most families with incomes of $500,000 per year or more were departing New Jersey for either the Keystone State or Florida, the Regent Atlantic authors added.

“The phenomena is there, that people are leaving – but people in New Jersey have high incomes,” said Joseph Seneca, professor of economics at the Edward Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.

My interpretation: no one really knows whether 10,000 millionaire households leaving is a big number or not. If the true figure was 5,000, might those who oppose higher taxes still argue that taxes are pushing a large number to leave? And if the true number was 15,000, would this be enough evidence that taxes really are making a difference? Because this appears to be an ideologically laden debate, each side can look at the 10,000 figure and make a reasonable interpretation.

Here are two ways around the issue that both make use of comparisons. The first way would be to compare the New Jersey leavings over the years. Is the 10,000 figure more or less than years past? The second would involve comparing the leaving rate across states. This new report looks at millionaires per capita across states but why not compare the leaving rate per capita across states? Then, people in New Jersey could decide whether they are concerned with having similar or different rates compared to states with other policies.

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