Cities have resurged to the forefront of American culture and capitalism in the past few decades. The tech and finance industries have brought untold wealth to elite cities like New York and San Francisco, while vanishing manufacturing and coal jobs have devastated rural communities. The sharpening economic urban-rural divide this trend has created has left wide swaths of the country behind in a booming economy.
Flush cities have used growing revenues to revitalize their communities and neighborhoods. City landscapes have benefited from additional parks, real estate development, and updated infrastructure. Meanwhile, private developers have been loath to invest money in dying towns, and cash-strapped rural municipalities lack the funds for basic maintenance, resulting in crumbling infrastructure and main streets lined with dilapidated buildings.
This increasing economic divide has also posed challenges for city dwellers. New businesses are struggling to pay rent and hire workers in cities that are astronomically expensive. Workers often cannot afford to live in these cities comfortably, squeezing into tiny living quarters or commuting long distances. Many find it impossible to save money or afford acceptable schools for their children.
Despite these high costs, many young people feel they have no choice but to flock to these large cities for job opportunities. As a result, rural communities have been left with aging populations and declining tax revenues that have only made their falling apart towns less appealing to the companies that might revive them.
Traditionally, rural communities have focused on enticing companies with tax breaks or other costly incentives to bring back jobs, in the hopes of replacing the businesses that have fled, downsized, or gone bankrupt. But this hasn’t proven to be enough of incentive, and has been perceived as unfair to businesses that were loyal to the area and never left.
Some rural communities have shifted to a new tactic, trying to leverage the very digital transformation that has left their economies behind: attracting remote knowledge workers.
As new technology has made collaborating across long distances highly productive, more companies have begun to shift to remote work. For companies located in expensive urban environments, hiring remote workers saves a significant amount of money, both by reducing the need for costly office space and by reducing salaries.
For rural communities, focusing on selling their town to individual people requires less capital and transformation than trying to entice large companies. These communities can pitch themselves as an idyllic alternative to the bustle and grime of overpriced cities. With a low cost of living, proximity to nature, and friendly cultures, these towns can appeal to millennials who value a well-rounded life, burnt out working parents seeking greater balance, and older workers who are over long commutes and the urban grind.
As part of their pitch, some localities have started offering remote workers benefits to relocate to their area. Vermont, for example, will pay remote workers $10,000 in grants over two years. A private organization in Tulsa, Oklahoma is giving remote workers who move to the area $10,000 in cash, as well as free access to co-working spaces and housing discounts. The town of Marquette, Kansas is offering people land, something it tried before in 2002. Evidently effective enough to repeat, in its first iteration the incentive made national news and was compared to the homesteads of the late-1800s.
However, it is not the prospect of farming that is bringing knowledge workers to rural areas, but rather a different way of life and any “digital first” work. Artisans, graphic designers, consultants, marketers, and accountants all can operate without any operational changes from remote areas, so long as there is Wi-Fi.
Many people still conceptualize a move to a rural community as something only suitable for artists and writers, believing that other work requires a communal office and proximity to major commercial centers. This belief might have been true when internet was erratic and collaboration tools like Slack, Zoom, and Monday did not exist, but the digital transformation has made it easy to collaborate successfully from afar.
Because of the financial savings and the hugely expanded talent pool, many tech companies have gone entirely remote, with a distributed workforce connected by digital collaboration. Other companies have a mixed workforce, structuring certain roles or whole departments as remote.
As more and more companies offer remote work, the possibility of knowledge workers moving to forgotten communities becomes more plausible. Knowledge workers can find more land, bigger houses, and experience a slower pace of life. Rural towns can experience an influx of spending that can uplift their community.
Towns are hoping new jobs and businesses will sprout up to meet the needs of remote knowledge workers, from real estate agents to insurance brokers to wait staff. Increased tax revenue will improve infrastructure and public amenities, sparking a transformation that will ultimately make these towns more appealing to both workers and companies.
The digital transformation is changing how we work and live. But rather than continue to leave much of the country behind, the remote work made possible by this transformation can help to stem the country’s burgeoning economic inequality. By bringing income back to struggling communities, remote knowledge workers can spur economic revitalization and close the widening divide between booming cities and the rest of the country.