The coronavirus pandemic moved lots of people to work remotely, and the feasibility of remote work moved a lot of people to move.
Some of that movement consists of big-city folks moving out to rural areas. But the movement from the coasts to big middle isn’t as big as we might hope. A June 2021 report from the Brookings Institution found that folks moving to the greater Mississippi watershed or the Rockies in 2020 constituted only a tiny fraction of the moves from big coastal metros:
City folks may be moving, but the vast majority aren’t Green Acring. These data support a point we’ve made previously on this blog: rural economic development requires much more than pitching broadband and white open spaces.
Given that, “attraction” strategies seem like a long shot for the places most in need of growth as the pandemic eases and remote work declines. Communities across the country should instead focus on the kind of basic block-and-tackling that will lead to more robust growth overall and a higher quality of life for residents. This includes the harder work of building authentic growth sectors; developing a skilled and diverse digital workforce; deploying robust transportation infrastructure for local residents; and enacting policies that support workers and their families, such as investment in education, accessible child care, and universal paid sick and family leave. New and better place-based and place-conscious federal policies would also help, such as the creation of sizable regional tech hubs in new places, or new investments in the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and minority-serving institutions (MSIs) [Mark Muro, Yang You, Robert Maxim, and Max Niles, “Remote Work Won’t Save the Heartland,” Brookings Institution, 2021.06.21].
Technology lets more people work from anywhere. That still doesn’t mean people will move to the middle of nowhere.