City Residents Pay More... Taxes

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Residents of big cities pay a disproportionate share of federal taxes. That's true not only of growing cities but declining Rustbelt ones, even hard-hit Detroit. Overall, urbanites pay 27 percent more in federal income taxes than workers with similar skills in small cities and  rural areas. That's according to an important new study by University of Michigan economist and MPI associate David Albouy in the Journal of Political Economy, Here's a summary of its key findings.

 

"Workers in cities are generally paid higher wages than similarly skilled workers in smaller towns, so they're taxed at higher rates. That may sound fair, until one considers the higher cost of living in cities, which means those higher wages don't provide any extra buying power. The federal income tax system doesn't account for cost of living. So the effect is that workers in expensive cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago pay more in taxes even though their real income is essentially the same as workers in smaller, cheaper places.

"The extra burden wouldn't be so excessive if more federal tax dollars were returned to urban areas in the form of higher federal spending. But according to Albouy's research, that's not the case. His data show that more federal dollars are actually spent in rural areas, despite the fact that cities send far more cash to Washington. The net effect of all this is a transfer of $269 million from workers in high-cost areas to workers in lower cost rural areas in 2008 alone.

"Over the long haul, Albouy says, the larger tax burden causes workers to flee large urban centers in the Northeast and settle in less expensive places in the South. So to some extent, it may have been the federal tax system that put the rust on the rust belt.

"Detroit is a perfect example of a city that gets the short end of the stick.

"With its high wage levels, Detroit was, until recently, contributing far more in federal revenues per capita than most other places for over one hundred years," Albouy said. The recent federal bailout to Detroit automakers "is peanuts relative to the extra billions the city has poured into Washington over the 20th Century."

"Albouy says that city folk shouldn't expect relief from this system anytime soon.

"Highly taxed areas tend to be in large cities inside of populous states, which have low Congressional representation per capita, making the prospect of reform daunting," he writes.

The full study is here (PDF).

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Richard Florida is Senior Editor at The Atlantic and Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto. See his most recent writing at The Atlantic Cities. More

Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative Class, Who's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He is founder of the Creative Class Group.

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