Remote work: Will country roads really take you home?


That’s the question raised by a new incentive program designed to draw workers freed from geography by remote-work options to live in the state of West Virginia. Ascend West Virginia is offering $12,000 and other perks as incentives to draw individuals, often high-income ones, who are now able to work from anywhere. Morgantown is the pilot site for the project, but other jurisdictions are planning to jump on board soon.

This program is unlikely to be the last of its kind for many non-coastal states eager to boost their populations and tax bases. West Virginia lost almost 40,000 people from 2010-19, and reversing these cuts will be important its long-term prospects. Other states have tried similar schemes, but this is one of the first to actively seek to leverage the pandemic remote-work boom.

This is something I’ve written about before — the end of winner-takes-all urbanism and the rise of America’s second cities. The rapid expansion of remote work has made it possible for people who were tied to big cities to move to lower-cost suburban and rural areas. Long-term attitudes of companies and workers toward remote work is somewhat in flux with employers sending conflicting signals about whether they intend to bring workforces back into centralized offices. This could turn into a labor-management (or management-management) tug-of-war as companies are forced to renegotiate employment agreements. What we do know is even prior to the pandemic, remote work was concentrated among higher earners. Many high earners bolted from cities like New York and San Francisco during COVID-19 investing in properties away from city centers. That group of highly talented workers will have more leverage over whether they return to the office, making them ripe transplant to places like wild, wonderful West Virginia, where costs are low and quality of life can be higher.

Pandemics ripple, reshaping societies and economies over years and even decades in unpredictable ways. COVID-19 could be kick-starting a trend that would shift income and brainpower out of the cities that have dominated the national and international economy for decades and seed people and money into areas we’ve gotten used to thinking of as being in hopeless decline.

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