Voting with Their Feet: Economic Freedom and Migration in Wisconsin


The news: A new study from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) reveals that economic policy is a key driver of migration flows; Wisconsin gaining 65,000 new residents from states that rank low for economic freedom, while losing nearly 38,000 to states that rank high for economic freedom. The study examines state-level migration over a five-year period from 2015 to 2019, and metropolitan area migration from 2010 to 2015.

According to the Economic Freedom Index (EFI), produced annually by the Fraser Institute, Wisconsin ranked 19th among states for economic freedom during the study period.

The quote: Adam Hoffer, WILL Bradley Freedom Fellow and director of the Menard Family Initiative at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse, said, “Our findings reinforce the idea that Wisconsin needs to establish policies that attract workers and businesses. We cannot change the weather. But we can change the policies that make Wisconsin an attractive place to live and work.

Dive deeper: Voting With Their Feet: Economic Freedom and Migration in Wisconsin, uses existing data from the Economic Freedom Index (EFI), combined with data on the movement of Wisconsin residents between metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), to examine the role what does economic freedom play in the migration of the state. Findings include:

  • Between 2015 and 2019, Wisconsin gained nearly 65,000 residents from states that score lower on the Index of Economic Freedom.
  • Between 2015 and 2019, Wisconsin lost nearly 38,000 residents to states with higher Economic Freedom Index scores.
  • Cities in Wisconsin are losing people to growing cities with more economic freedom. Cities like Phoenix and larger cities in Texas that have higher EFI rankings are among the cities Wisconsin loses the most nationally.
  • Wisconsin is gaining residents from its less free neighbors. Wisconsin is a net beneficiary of migrants from neighboring cities like Chicago and Rockford, IL, which have lower EFI rankings than most cities in Wisconsin.
  • The Milwaukee metropolitan area leads the net loss of migrants from Wisconsin. While most other MSAs in the state are experiencing modest population growth, the losses in Milwaukee fully explain that the state is experiencing a net loss of migrants.
  • Appleton, Racine and Madison are driving the growth of migrants in the state. Combined, these areas recorded a net positive of over 1,500 MSA to MSA migrants per year from 2010 to 2015.
  • To increase migration, Wisconsin should implement policies that increase economic freedom. This includes further tax cuts, expanding academic freedom through a more open school choice program, and professional licensing reform.

What this means: Where people live is always a complex decision with lots of variables. But economic policy and freedom play a role. As governors and mayors consider what it takes to grow their states and cities, the right economic and fiscal environment can go a long way in making a community attractive.

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