Moving To and From Wisconsin

Migration and the Badger State

January 2012


Over the last 15 years, Wisconsin has shifted from a net gainer of people and income from migration to a net loser. Based on U.S. tax returns, the state lost as much as $8 billion from more people leaving than coming to the state during 2001-10. High-income retirees are moving to Florida, with annual average income of those moving to “retirement counties” there more than $130,000 during the past five years. Although a relatively large share of those moving to Wisconsin had college degrees, it appears that even more degreed residents are leaving.

Why people move to or from Wisconsin is often debated. Many maintain Wisconsin’s good schools and its quality of life attract young families to the state. Others suggest that both young and old leave due to weather, relatively high income and property taxes, comparatively low wages, or lack of jobs.
Regardless of the reasons, the risk is that emigrants take with them talent, wealth, and earning power. Evidence in these debates is often more anecdotal than not, but that does not have to be. More than 15 years of IRS data culled from income tax returns along with recent Census Bureau figures highlight several important migration patterns.
Over the last 15 years, Wisconsin has shifted from a net importer to a net exporter of people and income. Retirees are moving to Arizona and Florida, with high-income movers often choosing income-tax-free Florida. In fact, among all ages, Wisconsin seems to be losing more high-earners and college graduates than it is gaining. How to stem the tide is an important question for Wisconsin policymakers.
Despite cold winters, Wisconsin generally had more people moving to the state than leaving it during the 1990s and early 2000s. That has changed over the last 10 years.