Late last year Tulsa made news by announcing a program designed to attract people who had full-time online jobs to the city.
The incentives included up to $10k and perks like help with housing and cultivated coworking space. This wasn’t the first such “innovative” program; Vermont offers a similar package to people they imagine might be tempted to escape high cost of living areas for a more scenic residence.
A handful of other states have lower-stakes incentives that offer assistance with student loans, purchasing houses – one, in Kansas, will literally give people land.
These sorts of programs seem like a novel approach to dealing with the plight of rural America in an increasingly technology-dependent age.
As someone from the middle of nowhere, I can tell you that most small towns have a narrative arc: after kids graduate high school, they may go to college or directly begin working at whatever blue color industry still exists in the area, hoping that it won’t shut down and, thus, force your town to take bizarre measures to ensure its livelihood.
Remote work programs like these, with their singular focus on essentially seducing people with paychecks to live in “cheap” areas so that the states/towns can capitalize on their outsourced salaries for tax revenue and whatnot, are also missing deeper layers to the rural brain drain story.
First and foremost, they gloss over the fact that for many minorities, rural America is not a safe place. Tulsa, for wanting to appear innovative and forward thinking, needs to also reassure tech-workers, a diverse workforce often populated by multi-national employees, that the neighbors they find in Oklahoma aren’t a danger to them.
Even Vermont, long thought of as a bastion of tolerance, has seen reported hates crimes increase in recent years. Although these trends are not specific to rural areas (hate crimes across the US rose for the third consecutive year in 2018), minority populations in smaller areas lack resources that metropolitan areas offer, such as community centers and, well, community.
(Dating is tough anywhere, but can you imagine if you were the only kind of person like you?)
Let’s say that you felt safe and you’ve been lucky enough to find your life partner.
Would this kind of program then work?
Another shiny component of these remote recruitment programs is their use of housing and other long-term property as enticement. The implication here is that the remote workers who would relocate to these areas can afford these “affordable” new markets, perhaps even assuming that they have the savings necessary to be able to put a down payment on a house.
If someone has resided in an area with elevated costs of living, they likely haven’t been able to amass great savings. They might not even have the thousands of dollars in savings necessary to move from one state to another.
Although I can appreciate the cleverness of taking care of the state’s economic needs through these sorts of proposals, I am wary of what the experience might truly be like for those who have to live it. Of course, these transplants could try out Tulsa or Burlington for a year or two, take their couple thousand program dollars, and theoretically head back to the next opportunity, whether that be in Upstate New York or New York City. Even then, there’s no guarantee they’d break even financially or have had a pleasant experience out on the prairie.
But then again, maybe these sorts of “outsiders” moving to these places might inject the sort of social progress that can help address some of the issues that force local youth to seek out more open-minded locale. Their skills and resources could help inspire the next generation of small-town engineers or information workers, providing a glimpse of a possible future outside of the paper mill.
Either way, it will be interesting to see the long-term effects of these programs, and to see if they remain viable.