British historian Thomas Macaulay famously said, “The best government is one that desires to make the people happy and knows how to make them happy.”
That standard is clearly not what people are experiencing in Washington state.
For years, leaders in state government have been increasing the tax burden and imposing ever-tighter regulations that limit personal opportunity, lower household incomes and fall hardest on working people, middle-class families and small business owners.
On top of that statewide trend, Washington recently experienced deadly political violence in its largest city, accompanied by rising crime, public camping and drug use and similar signs of widespread lawlessness.
We all know that bad government makes people want to leave, but how does one measure that exactly? One method is to use U.S. Census estimates. Another is to track income tax filings with the IRS.
For independent researchers, however, these government sources include flaws and are often out of date.
There is one data source, though, showing where people are moving that is highly accurate and reported in near-real time: U-Haul rentals.
Because rented trucks, trailers and moving vans have to be returned locally after use, U-Haul knows exactly where its customers are moving to, and just as importantly, from what states they are leaving.
And because it is the largest do-it-yourself mover, this private company is in the best position to reflect current national trends. To preserve the privacy of its customers, U-Haul only reports anonymous aggregate data, never personal information.
The latest annual report from U-Haul on some two million, one-way household moves in 2020 shows Washington dropping precipitously from the coveted No. 5 spot as most desired place to live all the way down to No. 36.
That position of unpopularity is not as bad as California’s, at No. 50, but it is a long way from top-ranked Tennessee, Texas and Florida as the most-sought destinations for one-way U-Haul movers.
The three most popular states on the list have one good policy factor in common: none of them impose a tax on personal income. Washington state has the same advantage, which is likely the single greatest reason our state hasn’t seen even more people move away.
Still, to fall 31 places in one year is no compliment and reflects the fact that, in a year that was tough on everyone, people in Washington had it tougher than most.
The governor’s emergency executive orders, issued in March, remain firmly in place, with little sign of wider economic opening, easing of social restrictions or a return to normal public school operations (although most private schools have managed to open and operate under social-distancing restrictions).
The result is an economic and emotional strain that feels worse every passing week. While other states and even whole countries are progressively opening their economies with health guidelines, Washington, California and others remain in a limited lock-down.
When health conditions improve and Covid-19 restrictions are over things will undoubtedly improve, but our underlying high-tax, high-regulation governing policies will remain.
The health crisis is temporary, but with the structural burden of poor governance Washington is likely to continue to fall down the list, until one day we may earn the unhappy distinction of becoming the number one place people want to leave.
Of course our elected leaders hopefully will choose a better path, building on our having no income tax, the natural beauty of our region and our friendly communities to add more good reasons for people to move to, instead of away from, the Evergreen State.
The full U-Haul report is based on 22,000 truck-and-trailer sharing locations in 2020 and is posted at uhaul.com/Articles/About/22746/2020-Migration-Trends-U-Haul-Ranks-50-States-By-Migration-Growth.
Paul Guppy is vice president for research for the Washington Policy Center.
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