Nationally, the U.S. population only grew by 0.1 percent between July 2020 and July 2021, the lowest rate since the nation’s founding. Pandemic-induced excess deaths, virtually nonexistent international in-migration, and an already-declining birth rate yielded an almost flat population trend nationwide. This, however, belies state-level and regional differences. Whereas the District of Columbia’s population shrunk by 2.8 percent between April 2020 (roughly the start of the pandemic) to July 2021, New York lost 1.8 percent of its population, and Illinois, Hawaii, and California rounded out the top five jurisdictions for population loss, Idaho was gaining 3.4 percent, while Utah, Montana, Arizona, South Carolina, Delaware, Texas, Nevada, Florida, and North Carolina all saw population gains of 1 percent or more.
The picture painted by this population shift is a clear one of people leaving high-tax, high-cost states for lower-tax, lower-cost alternatives. The individual income tax is only one component of overall tax burdens, but it is often highly salient, and is illustrative here. If we include the District of Columbia, then in the top one-third of states for population growth since the start of the pandemic (April 2020 to July 2021 data), the average combined top marginal state and local income tax rate is 3.5 percent, while in the bottom third of states, it is about 7.3 percent.
States are permitted to replenish their unemployment compensation (UC) trust funds using the $195.3 billion they received in Fiscal Recovery Funds under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA)—and they need the help, having paid out $175 billion in state-funded benefits since the start of the pandemic, in addition to the $661 billion shelled out by the federal government in extended and expanded benefits, for a total of about $836 billion between January 27, 2020 and September 11, 2021.
Pre-pandemic trust fund balances stood at $72.5 billion. Today, aggregate trust fund balances are negative, at -$11.1 billion, reflecting $44.8 billion in indebtedness currently incurred by 10 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands. By federal standards, 34 state accounts are currently insolvent, with $114.6 billion needed to bring them all up to what the federal government regards as minimum adequate levels.
Forty-three states and the District of Columbia have now published revenue data for all 12 months of 2020; in those states, revenues are up $3.2 billion in aggregate compared to the previous calendar year, thanks to robust gains in financial markets and federal assistance that has kept businesses afloat and provided benefits to individuals. Some of those are, indeed, taxable benefits, in the case of enhanced and expanded unemployment compensation benefits. For the remaining seven states, it is necessary to project revenues through the end of the calendar year based either on U.S. Census Bureau data through the three quarters, or, in Nevada and New Mexico, state data running through October and November respectively.
These adjustments yield an aggregate $1.7 billion decline in state revenues. Under the American Rescue Plan Act, states would receive $195.3 billion in aid, divided according to each state’s share of national unemployed workers. Under Senate amendments, a further adjustment is made to ensure that each state receives, at minimum, the amount it was allocated for purposes of the Coronavirus Relief Fund under the CARES Act. While some conservative lawmakers have criticized this allocation model (which benefits states with steeper job losses) on the grounds that different state policies and approaches may yield some of this variation and that the federal government should be neutral to these decisions, we have argued previously that using the change in unemployment is a more efficient targeting method than allocating aid per capita. Far less defensible, however, is the notion that aid to states should be 116 times the decline in state revenues—especially since the federal government has already provided over $200 billion in fungible aid to subnational governments.