Work From Home Isnt Just for Elites. Its the Revolution Rural America Needs
One of the major fault lines of the pandemic has been the one dividing people who can work from home from those who can’t. The pandemic has put a spotlight on remote white-collar employees, often pitting them against essential workers who do not have the luxury of working from home. “When you talk about closing down our city, you’re talking about putting low-wage workers out of a job,” tweeted New York City Mayor Eric Adams.
But this framing is incomplete. Because working from home has represented a real revolution for rural America and those like me who make our homes here. Remote working allows small towns and rural communities to finally compete with big cities and suburbs. And it presents an exciting new opportunity to renew our small towns, opening the doors to a rural renaissance in the 21st century.
For decades, scholars and policymakers have been wringing their hands over rural brain drain. In my home state of Kentucky, which ranks number one for brain drain, there is a shocking 28 percent gap between highly educated people leaving the state compared to those coming in. Across the Big Sandy River, rugged and isolated West Virginia has seen a consistent population decline since 1950. And those getting out are those who can.
This has real world consequences. Educated taxpayers leave the state, taking with them tax dollars which are needed to fund everything from roads to local schools. It’s no wonder, then, that rural areas struggle not only with smaller tax bases but also fewer federal dollars subsidizing them than their urban counterparts, because of their smaller populations. This in turn limits the quality of education and opportunities rural students have compared to their urban peers.
Remote work, however, offers a chance to level this playing field. As the cost of living in cities across America continues to skyrocket, the ability to work from home could transform into an exodus of educated professionals from their urban bubbles into the hinterlands.
And it’s this that’s missing from the debate about remote work: the fact that it has the potential to transform rural America. It can stem our brain drain and bring in much-needed tax revenue in places which have declined under globalization. It can also bring in new jobs, allowing the rural workforce to tap into the globalized, digital economy. Remote work has the potential to transform the rural economy, finally bringing autonomy and stability to communities which have experienced massive upheaval over the past half-century or more.
Towns like Bemidji, Minnesota are already realizing this, instituting programs to attract these remote workers to their communities. In Western Kentucky, Paducah even offered cash incentives for professionals to relocate to the town, understanding the value they bring in the form of tax revenue, capital (both financial and social), and expertise.
And the ability to work from home means that the kids growing up in rural America today may not have to face the same dilemma generations of rural Americans faced over the 20th and early 21st century: stay home or leave for a better life. The better life can come to them without them ever having to leave their communities.
No system is perfect, and working remotely poses new challenges to workers, employers, and the economy. But there is no denying it is an exciting opportunity for rural America, one that could finally help towns like mine left behind by the globalized economy recover. Finally, rural America can enjoy the fruits of the modern economy and share in the bounty of America.
In 2017, I covered the UK General Election as a contributing editor at the GayUK Magazine. I would wake up every morning at 2:00 AM, make a pot of coffee, and get to work interviewing members of parliament and candidates. Why so early? Because I wasn’t based in London like the rest of the team. I was in Chicago.
Today I’m writing this article from my home in East Tennessee. I relocated to the rural south in 2018 to be closer to family. Without the ability to work remotely, I would not have been able to do this.
The debate about working from home needs to widen its scope. The coastal myopia is hiding one of the biggest benefits. It’s not about stop the spread of COVID anymore, but about encouraging the spread of talented Americans—back to rural America.