"Listen up, New York—Florida sucks, and you'll all be back in five years." So proclaimed New York Post reporter Steve Cuozzo last June, after the flight south of hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens from the Empire State. Many have found refuge in Florida, which prides itself on generous tax laws, low crime, a pro-business environment, unobtrusive pandemic policies, an anti-woke ethos, and general ease of life.
"You'll all be sorry," Cuozzo predicted. What are his complaints about the "Sunshine State?" On a visit to Miami Beach, he had waited too long for coffee. A friend's ocean view was blocked by new construction. Sometimes it rains. He had heard bad things about alligators. Cuozzo's article "wasn't offensive," retorted his Boca Raton-based Post colleague and recovering New York chauvinist Karol Markowicz. "It was hilarious."
The temptation to leave New York was hard to resist at the height of the pandemic. Even Cuozzo's social media accounts showed him lounging with a happy alligator grin at Palm Beach's Colony Hotel and other Florida locales on what he would have credulous New Yorkers believe were miserable visits. Indeed, the 2020 census showed so many New Yorkers leaving that New York State lost a congressional seat, while Florida gained one.
In 2021, even as New York lifted many—but not all—of its Covid restrictions, a record-breaking 61,728 of its citizens exchanged their driver's licenses for Florida licenses, a figure that excludes tens of thousands of minors or other non-driving migrants. New York officials predicted that the pandemic's waning would entice transplants to return and stanch its hemorrhaging of people and money. In 2021, they were confident enough to raise income taxes to the highest level in America—a combined state and local top rate of 14.778 percent, compared with Florida's 0 percent—even as high-income earners filled the streets of Manhattan with southbound moving vans.
"Big hitters have had it because they get nothing for the high state and city taxes," says Paul S. Levy, who founded JLL Partners, a New York private equity firm, and is now a Florida resident. "Florida cities now offer safety, no taxes, ease of life and movement, business with unobtrusive regulations, and all the vaunted cultural opportunities of New York City can be had in varying degrees elsewhere, from fun food, youth culture, museums, and music at a fraction of the cost."
The summer of 2021 in the city was heralded as a "summer of love," but that proved a bust. Covid restrictions continued, crime rose, and people kept leaving. Later that year, many hoped that the departure of the city's unpopular mayor Bill De Blasio would usher in change at the hands of Eric Adams, a former New York City police captain who might at least take fighting crime seriously. "It can only get better," many assured us. In the first year of Adams's mayoralty, however, major crimes increased by 22 percent over the previous year's awful numbers. The only silver lining was a slight decline in homicides in late 2022.
When challenged on crime in her October 2022 gubernatorial debate against Republican challenger Lee Zeldin, whom an attacker tried to stab during a campaign speech and whose children were at home when two other teenagers were shot outside his house, New York Governor Kathy Hochul stated, "I don't know why that's so important to you." More gun control was the answer, she asserted. Florida, by contrast, which permits concealed weapons, just recorded its lowest crime rate in 50 years. When confronted with this massive disparity in public safety, New York boosters who shudder at the thought that citizens might be permitted to defend themselves apparently ignore cases like that of the unfortunate Jose Alba, a 61-year-old New York City bodega employee. Alba was charged with second-degree murder last July for using a knife to defend himself against an assailant who attacked him on camera.
In April 2022, trying to entice New Yorkers to return, Adams unveiled a billboard campaign in five Florida cities proclaiming New York a place "where you can say and be whoever you want." The ads not only failed to bring back transplants but were also quickly exposed as free speech hypocrisy—a city attorney at the launch event was fired for asking when the mayor would remove mask requirements at New York City schools.
Last year, the outflow from New York not only continued but accelerated. According to official figures in January 2023, the state lost more people in the first post-pandemic year than in any other year. Some 64,577 New Yorkers traded in their driver's licenses for Florida licenses in 2022—a 4.6 percent increase over 2021. The numbers fleeing New York remained steady as the year progressed, moreover, with about 25 percent of the departures occurring in the final quarter of the year, and more than 5,000 leaving in December 2022.
The scores of thousands of New Yorkers who left are not alone. There were similar jumps in license-exchanges by former residents of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, California, and several other blue states. They apparently disagreed with Governor Hochul's claim at a ceremony to commemorate the Holocaust that "Florida is overrated." Instead, many complied with her suggestion that New Yorkers fed up with crime, high taxes, and government regulations "just jump on a bus and head down to Florida where you belong."
Many of New York's leaders seem unperturbed by the exodus. In December 2022, a coalition of activists and Democratic politicians called Invest in Our New York advocated another $40 billion tax hike on the state's already-declining high-income population. Members of the Democratic-controlled state legislature took advantage of the holiday season by voting themselves a 29 percent salary increase, making them the nation's highest paid state representatives.
Other problems are piling up. Polio, virtually eradicated in the 1950s, has been detected in all five boroughs of New York City. According to New York City's Department of Homeless Services, 67,321 people—including more than 22,000 children—slept in homeless shelters in the first week of 2023, only slightly more than the number of New Yorkers who got Florida driver's licenses last year. Such suffering might be only the beginning. With no solution to his city's out-of-control homelessness, Adams has declared that newly arrived illegal immigrants from overwhelmed border jurisdictions could drive New York into bankruptcy. Instead of housing tourists, many Manhattan hotels are now home to the displaced. And even by this measure, New York is struggling. Last month, the New York Times reported that large numbers of new migrants to the city were moving to Canada in search of cheaper housing and greater opportunity. In 2022 alone, more than 39,000 migrants reportedly crossed the state's northern border. New York City has been buying their bus tickets.
Might New York's leaders have finally started to grasp the city's plight? Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, a Democrat, told Bloomberg News in December 2022 that the flight of high-income New Yorkers—and their tax dollars—"should be a concern for everybody." He might have made that observation in 2020, when 11 percent of New Yorkers earning between $1 and $5 million per year departed. He added, "we might be getting near that tipping point where we do make it economically unsustainable for enough of those folks to stay here." Even Hochul apparently agrees, saying after her closer-than-expected election in November, "I don't believe that raising taxes . . . makes sense." In her inaugural address in January 2023, she warned that New York must "reverse the trend of people leaving our state."
How she intends to do that remains unclear. She might well prefer building a wall to lowering taxes. But even Adams recently lamented: "To continually attack high-income earners when 51 percent of our taxes are paid by 2 percent of New Yorkers—it blows my mind. . . . I want my high income earners right here in this city!" For now, though, the taxpayers who sustain New York still seem more inclined to get out of town. And many continue to prefer Florida, alligators and all.
Judith Miller is a City Journal contributing editor and the author of The Story: A Reporter's Journey. Paul du Quenoy is president of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute.