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Pandemic, Remote Work Not Driving Workers from Coasts to Rural Middle

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:

Mark Muro, Yang You, Robert Maxim, and Max Niles, "Remote Work Won't Save the Heartland," Brookings Institution, 2021.06.21.
Mark Muro, Yang You, Robert Maxim, and Max Niles, “Remote Work Won’t Save the Heartland,” Brookings Institution, 2021.06.21.

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.


  1. larry kurtz 2021-10-07

    It’s not always easy to find similarities with New Mexico and my home state of South Dakota but one correlation stands out: the growth in the Latino population is surging. In the Midwest the Latino community has grown 28 percent in the last decade and in the Southwest it’s grown nearly 20 percent. Venezuelans make up the largest inbound demographic. And as the Republican Party caves on immigration after Governor Kristi Noem said she won’t accept Afghan compatriots in South Dakota wage slaves could make real social justice change by walking off their jobs then calling for a general strike and bring Kristi to her senses, too.

  2. 96Tears 2021-10-07

    Home officing isn’t new, but COVID forced armies of desk jockeys to work from home … and discover the benefits for bosses and employees of the virtual office place instead of the far more costly brick-and-mortar attendance centers. Of course, this led to a lot of folks (myself included) of thinking why not relocate somewhere I wish to live and enjoy life more? Heck, I could be living in the home with a view where I would love to retire!

    I have a sibling in an east coast metro area who moved further out into the ‘burbs in the last year, and in a much nicer home that makes working from home more delightful. No two hour commutes in the floating parking lot on the Interstate. No more rushing out to lunch and rushing back. No more getting home after 7:30 p.m., eating supper late, going to bed early to get up at 5 to do it all over again. And if he’s thinking of moving west to continue working from home, he’s thinking Colorado, Montana, Oregon or Idaho, not his home state of South Dakota. His wife would divorce him. They are both die-hard Republicans.

    It’s funny, Cory, that this post and the previous one on tax shelters for tax cheats are related. Interesting that the dude credited with helping the tax cheat industry of empty offices here, Pierce H. McDowell III, refers to the state he’s exploiting as “North America’s Siberia.” Not exactly Chamber of Commerce material.

    I’m afraid that’s how most of the nation views South Dakota, no matter how many times they see Noem pictured on a horse riding with the Stars and Stripes like a 16-year-old rodeo queen. She is symbolic of this state’s dystopian dysfunctions. South Dakota used to be a much better and nicer place when I was a kid.

  3. Mark Anderson 2021-10-07

    You know, I knew, barely Chris Browne of Hagar the Horrible fame because I had two of Mike Peter’s kids for students. One son-in-law too. Mike Peter’s of Mother Goose and Grim fame. Sarasota used to be a haven for cartoonists, but alas all things come to an end. Mike Peter’s threw some great parties. However Chris Browne was invited to an event in Sioux Falls and he loved the place so much, he packed up and moved there. It reminded him of the Sarasota that used to be. Maybe he’s moved since but among those who can work wherever and can afford to move Sioux Falls is great. Rapid is too, but that won’t be a ton of people. Believe it or not, South Dakota is a desirable place to live. That needs to be sold too. Excepting the weather it would be a retirement place for many, its cheaper. It has alot of qualities people like, and Sioux Falls should be a regional tech hub, not just a national collection agency. Noem will bring in no one other than the disgruntled and they won’t give up Idaho or Montana. You don’t want them anyway.

  4. larry kurtz 2021-10-07

    We operate an Airbnb with a strong WiFi and regularly host people who want to work remotely while being where coyotes is the only noise. We’re remodeling another house for guests who want even longer stays.

  5. cibvet 2021-10-07

    Most city folks will tell you it is a great place to visit, but don’t want to live here. I’m OK with that. I would say the same about their city. Don’t mind visiting, but no thanks to living there.

  6. Yvonne 2021-10-07

    Three comedians from New York performed at the “Monument” theatre in Rapid City Wednesday night. They were down right wraunchy I hear.
    And the opinion they had of the Black Hills, Badlands and Mount Rushmore was the brunt of some of their jokes…quite disturbing.
    A demeaning and separate few of western South Dakota from outsiders brought out laughs from the audience.
    My point, here, not all desire to live in South Dakota much less visit unless paid significant money, insult the state, then vow not to ever return again whether paid or not.
    Hey, that sounds like the money bags that hide their money here for self gain only.
    High profile Graduates for many years may receive their education here but leave afterwards.
    Many airman/woman I know that are stationed at EAFB dread coming to South Dakota and can’t wait to leave to their next post.

  7. ArloBlundt 2021-10-07

    well….these last two Covid years I’ve tried to read as much as I could about the formation of Dakota Territory, the campaign for statehood and early settlement of the state. What happened then, continues to happen now. The people who settle in South Dakota are looking for a “second or third chance”, have no place else to go, are independent thinkers who have not been able to “fit in” to other places, or are seeking refuge and anonymity.South Dakota is the end of the road.

  8. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2021-10-08

    Larry, have any of your Airbnb residence falling in love with the location so much that they’ve decided to move in permanently?

  9. larry kurtz 2021-10-08

    At least a dozen guests have stayed while looking for property, many from New York and the upper Midwest. The median home price in Santa Fe County has just gone over $700,000 but people can still find places in Albuquerque for far less but it’s a huge town with big, bad challenges.

    I-25 southbound is currently flooded with monster RVs from Alberta, North Dakota and Minnesota fleeing the impending polar vortices.

  10. Donald Pay 2021-10-08

    Arlo, It may be true that desperation and second chances drew many white people to settle in Dakota, but I think that is the story of American settlement in general. There were some black settlers as well, who had decided life in the South was not what they wanted. If land prices were too high in Illinois or Iowa or Nebraska, people came to claim some land in Dakota territory. Some proved up and stayed.
    Many were forced out as crops failed during periodic drought. I’m not sure how much independent thinking had to do with moving to South Dakota. Now staying there took some independent thinking. Many of the people who moved to South Dakota thought they could farm as they did in Iowa or Illinois. They had to change to stay.

  11. Porter Lansing 2021-10-08

    If I HAD to leave CO, I’d choose New Mexico over South Dakota.
    NM has culture.
    SD has culture but it’s an ongoing attempt by the white people to suppress it.
    Native American day is Monday, by the way.
    I have a fine photo of the statue of Columbus being removed, in downtown Denver, last year.
    SD, without Indian culture, has German culture throughout.
    That’s simply, being entertained by denying yourself entertainment.
    Not really a selling point to families, not of the MAGA persuasion.

  12. ArloBlundt 2021-10-08

    DFonald…I guess by independent thinking among early settlers I’mm thinking of the Germans from Russia who were Mennonites and Hutterites who lived largely separate livers and built their own communities. Also the
    “Red Finns” who came out of the copper mines in northern Michigan and worked first in the mines and timber of the Black Hills before taking farms in the foot hills. Think also of the Danes and non Lutheran Swedes, ,members of the northern European “free thinkers” movement.Most in this movement were non church goers. You can throw in a number of the Irish, Catholics, who dispersed throughout South Dakota where they were met with prejudice and suspicion. They thumbed their nose at Protestant convention, voted consistently against prohibition and the interests of the wealthy and were a vocal minority in communities throughout the state. A surprising number were newspaper editors and crusading lawyers. A substantial number of freed s;laves lived and worked in Yankton in the 1870’s,about 100, which would be one eighth of the population. Most had come from the St. Louis area and worked on the steam ships plying the Missouri. Several families stayed on including the Blakeys. Ted Blakey was a Republican State Committeeman up into the 1980’s. Now that’s an independent thinker.

  13. RS 2021-10-08

    While the movement from California to South Dakota may not be big in numbers, the effect on some of the small towns in North Central SD have been quite evident. Two years ago, name a town between Aberdeen and the Missouri River and there were dozens of homes for sale and listed for months, taken off, relisted again. Some towns had numerous houses to rent for hunting or fishing a week at a time. Now there is basically nothing available to buy or rent in the area. Even the rental properties have been bought up, so don’t expect to find your old hunting digs come pheasant hunting next week. Where did they go? Locals will tell you, Californians came in and swept them all up.
    I guess you could call her, an honest realtor that told me today prices are way out of wack for what you get and where its located. They have no clue what awaits them this winter. The Internet may allow you to work, but it won’t keep you warm!

  14. Joe 2021-10-09

    I will just note that NYC showed strong growth between the 2010 and 2020 censuses, and is now home to well over 8M people. These “studies” rarely mention that all the folks leaving these cities are replaced by new residents.

    California lost a congressional seat because it grew more slowly than the nation overall. It still grew by over 1M people.

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