Yes, Mayor Jones, the Earnings Tax Really Does Hinder Economic Growth
The St. Louis Business Journal had an excellent article last week on the present state of the St. Louis City earnings tax. I encourage you to read it all.
My purpose here is simply to respond to one statement in the article by St. Louis’s Mayor Jones:
“I urge those who want to eliminate the earnings tax to show me their plan to replace it, their pro forma on these so-called ‘fiscal cliffs,’ and why cities with much higher earnings tax rates continue to grow,” Jones said in a statement.
I would like to remind people that, as for a plan to replace the earnings tax, the PFM Group out of Philadelphia has provided St. Louis with multiple, enormous reports on fiscal options for the city. Having read these studies, I assure you they go into great detail on these topics. If the city and its leaders aren’t serious about considering and incorporating these recommendations, among others, that’s on the city.
Do some cities with earnings taxes continue to grow? Of course they can. Some cities, like, say, New York City, have qualities and advantages that help them overcome the harms of local income taxes and continue to grow nevertheless. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, but it doesn’t mean local earnings (also known as income or wage) taxes don’t harm cities. Nobody is saying that a city can’t grow if it has an earnings tax. The claim—backed up by evidence—is that they would grow faster without one.
You don’t have to take our word for it (but you should). In Triumph of the City, Harvard economist Ed Glaeser states: “The indirect effect of a local income tax is to encourage richer citizens and businesses to leave.” He cited this study, in which the authors determined that, among other findings, “We estimate that between 1971 and 2001 Philadelphia lost 172,889 jobs because of the increase in city wage tax rates.” (Similar effects were found for New York City.)
It’s one thing to say the city is not in a position to immediately drop the earnings tax in one fell swoop. That’s a defensible position. It’s another to deny that it harms economic growth. That’s not defensible. The worst part, though, is watching the city enact legislation and pass constant tax subsidies that make it more dependent on the earnings tax, instead of trying to be less dependent on it over time. The city has chosen to put itself in this position, and that is regrettable.