What do Illinois and Hawaii have in common that's causing residents to flee?
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On the face of it, there aren’t a lot of similarities between Illinois and Hawaii, barring, perhaps, a certain love for the kind of local culinary specialties that cause nutritionists to sigh and shake their heads.

But there is one thing they have in common, and it provides a policy lesson for other states.

Both Illinois and Hawaii are among the states experiencing worrying levels of “flight.” In other words, more residents from those states are leaving than from most other states for opportunities elsewhere — and for many of the same reasons.

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At first you might say that it makes sense for Illinois residents to leave for greener pastures. The weather can be harsh. There are complaints about rising violence and failing schools. If better jobs are available somewhere more pleasant, then why not move?

 

The only state with a greater population decline in 2016 than Illinois (by percentage of population) was West Virginia. John Denver’s affection notwithstanding, there have been plenty of reasons offered as to why people are ceasing to call West Virginia “home.” One state representative referenced the state’s levels of drug abuse as a problem for businesses. Wheeling’s mayor suggested the state merely needed more housing, parks and “culture” to attract families.

But if weather and parks are all it takes to convince people to stay home, then explain Hawaii. The Aloha State also is experiencing negative population growth, and it can hardly be blamed on harsh winters, crime, lack of culture or a dearth of nice, outdoorsy parks and beaches.

What’s more, leaving Hawaii is not a decision that people take lightly. When people in Hawaii leave their families behind to take jobs on the mainland, they know it will be years before they will see each other again. Returning home again isn’t cheap; the farewell often is permanent. 

In fact, leaving for greener financial pastures is so much a part of the culture that a recent Grassroot Institute of Hawaii video about the state’s population loss hit a nerve among Hawaii expats. People don’t leave Hawaii because they want to; they leave because they believe they have to. And if that’s true for Hawaii, then it’s probably true for Illinois, West Virginia and the other states experiencing negative population growth.

Nor is it a mystery why people leave. The politicians can talk about changes in migration patterns and the need for more parks (or whatever pet project they favor). But when you ask the people who decided to say goodbye to friends and family, you get a very direct answer: “We couldn’t afford it.”

It always comes down to that. Whether in the form of high taxes, high cost of living, rising housing prices, lack of job opportunities, rising unemployment or burdensome regulations — or all of the above — cost is always at the heart of the explanation.

And IRS data confirms it: The people leaving Hawaii go predominantly to states with lower tax burdens. They go where the opportunity is. Not because, “That’s just how it is these days,” but because they have few other choices. 

People don’t leave Hawaii because they want to. They leave because they believe they have to. And Hawaii lawmakers — and legislators from every state with negative population growth — should consider what that means for their state’s economic future.

The fact that a significant number of young people are looking at their situation and saying, “I don’t think I can make it here,” is ominous. It reflects negative economic conditions that can’t be hidden with new tax schemes or spending proposals. 

Pointing to Illinois’ unfunded liabilities, economic woes and problems with corruption, it’s no wonder that Investor’s Business Daily called the state “the sick man of America.” Hawaii also suffers from state budget problems, as well high taxes and a plethora of regulations and policies that discourage investment and entrepreneurship.

In all such states, reformers have been warning for years that when the bills comes due, their states won’t be prepared. And the fact that the tax base is fleeing (and taking their little future tax bases with them) only makes the problem worse.

So blame the weather or the lack of culture or the limitations of island living, but in the end, the situation is just like it is for anyone else who keeps getting dumped on over and over again.

The common denominator here is bad policy and lack of opportunity, whether in paradise or the Land of Lincoln.

Malia Blom Hill is the policy director of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii (@GrassrootHawaii), a public policy think tank dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, free markets and limited, accountable government.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.