Remote Work Incentives Are a Scam

Jake Maynard


Add “rural brain drain” to the long list of problems that technocratic thinking will worsen by trying to solve. Last month, West Virginian mega-millionaire Brad D. Smith announced the first 53 recipients of his “Ascend WV”offer—a fellowship-esque program aimed at proffering cash incentives to convince remote workers to move to the Mountain State. The program, funded by Smith and promoted by the West Virginia Department of Tourism, began accepting applications back in April and chose the 53 from a pool of over 7,500 applicants. The new fellows will receive $12,000 grants to move to Morgantown, West Virginia, a small city on the Pennsylvania border, plus other freebies worth an additional ten grand.

The rub is that in order to qualify for the money, you have to bring a remote job with you. Instead of funding programs for the poor directly, Ascend WV hopes that the checkbooks of white-collar professionals will do the trick. According to Smith, “It’s a game changer for the local communities as we welcome these new West Virginians in and they bring with them their jobs, their families, their talents and their purchasing power.” If you already live in the state, or you want to move there and work for a local employer, too bad. The average income of the folks receiving the cash is about $100,000 a year. The average income of a West Virginian? $25,000.

Smith, who was raised in West Virginia, is the former CEO of Intuit, maker of Turbotax—the company waging war on free tax filing. He has a history of buying his way into government, so it’s no surprise that he’s recruited West Virginia Governor Jim Justice to help attract newcomers by slashing taxes, as well as administrative help from West Virginia University, whose flagship campus is in Morgantown. Those accepted will also receive access to bonuses like water recreation activities. It’s unclear exactly how much it will cost to import some yuppies and teach them to kayak, but Brad Smith has ponied up 25 million dollars to fund Ascend WV, which also includes outdoor recreation programs for locals. Smith seems to think that a rising tide will lift all kayaks.  

Similar remote worker programs have been introduced in Northwest Arkansas, Hamilton, Ohio (north of Cincinnati), and, most notably, the entire state of Vermont. The fact that Ascend WV is paying a little more than other hill-country getaways like Vermont and the Ozarks hints that a bidding war between the flyover states could be brewing. As major cities fall over themselves to woo Google and Amazon, small towns angle for graphic designers and onboarding specialists. This is neoliberal community development at the height of its power.

Ascend WV is noteworthy for two other reasons: the marketing is especially hip, and it offers numerous side benefits, like the aforementioned kayaking and other free activities, “coworking space, social programming, professional development and entrepreneurial assistance, and outdoor recreation assessment enhancement.” It seems a lot like a gentrification starter park. You never even have to meet the neighbors if you don’t want to—Ascend WV will introduce newcomers to “local ambassadors,” volunteers who sign up to take newcomers on “a scenic trail ride” or to “your town’s dining district.”

Ascend WV has developed a “community playbook” to help small towns figure out if they can attract remote workers. The playbook tells us that before deciding to leave the city, yuppies will consider:

– Essential Assets: good broadband and housing
– Outdoor Assets: “hiking trails and outdoor runs to ski slopes and ATVs”
– Community Vibrancy: “local boutiques and art galleries”
– Livability: good schools and healthcare
– Economic Factors: “Remote workers want to move to areas that demonstrate promise and possibility—places that are seeing upticks in workforce participation, new job growth and positive population patterns are often reviewed as more attractive.”

The approach is insulting. If you live in a town without a nearby hospital, you should probably build one, or else remote workers won’t want to move there. If you live in a town without a state park, you should consider having one instead. If you want to be wealthier, try being less poor first.

 

The alleged goal of remote worker relocation programs is to counteract “rural brain drain”—a term that the media has adopted to describe the phenomenon of educated young people choosing to leave their small towns. While this lamentation isn’t new—in 1927, country banjoist Uncle Dave Mason sang “The public schools and the highways are raisin’ quite an alarm / Get a country boy educated just a little, and he ain’t a-gonna work on the farm”—it is true that out-migration is increasing.

Supposedly, I am a product of the rural brain drain I hear so much about. I am a first-generation college graduate from a town of 700 in Pennsylvania’s most rural area. I left home for college in 2006, just before the term “brain drain” gained prominence and hedge fund managers fucked the economy. No one in my family had been to college until I was in high school, when my mom entered a two-year nursing program after her factory closed. She drove over two hours a day, five days a week to attend. Just around the time she finished, my dad’s factory closed too. We weren’t the upper crust of my hometown, but my parents were resourceful, and were lucky to have no major tragedies befall them, job losses aside. They prioritized my education so much that my dad logged and sold timber from the woods behind our house to pay for my textbooks.

Like the brain-drain class, I was supposed to head for Pittsburgh, Philly, or New York. But instead, I ping-ponged back and forth between my hometown and other places like it, living in small towns in Ohio and Alaska and spending most of my twenties in West Virginia. I’ve actually lived in two of the towns on the approved relocation list for Ascend WV. They were the most class-stratified places I’ve ever resided—with cute downtowns, art galleries, nice bars, and, on the outskirts, disenfranchised communities that neither wanted nor benefitted from those things. There were, in essence, two overlapping worlds, suffused with class animosity.

Now, every time I hear the phrase “rural brain drain,” it raises my hackles. At best, the concept has been so oversimplified that it’s approaching meaninglessness. At worst, it’s offensive, implying that those who chose to stay in their hometown are somehow deficient, ignorant, unintelligent, and unmotivated. It’s the kind of sociological whitewash that allows liberals to distinguish themselves from Trump Country—part of a larger pattern, as Elizabeth Catte has noted in Salon, of pinning the nation’s issues on hillbillies. It’s unclear why the term caught on, but it could be because people love both pop sociology and phrases that rhyme. Human Resource Out-Migration doesn’t have the same ring to it.

 

Brain drain isn’t as simple as Brad Smith seems to believe. While the term has been used to discuss out-migration from developing nations, rural areas, and poor Black neighborhoods, brain drain entered the lexicon mostly through the book Hollowing Out The Middle by Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas, sociologists who lived in a small Iowa town in the early 2000s and conducted fieldwork on the staying, leaving, and returning tendencies of the town’s youth. While a lot has changed since then, most of the arguments in Hollowing Out The Middle hold up. Carr and Kefalas discovered that for a lot of young people, like me, leaving their hometown was a process that occurred in fits and starts.

Not many of the young people interviewed (their anonymized place of origin listed, ridiculously, as “Liberty County”) took a binary view. Few loathed the idea of leaving wholesale, or, conversely, were impatient to get out. Instead, the research reveals, the town’s most talented kids (read: more privileged) were essentially driven out by their parents and teachers. Such was my experience as well. Prepared from a young age to attend college, the kids of well-connected or highly motivated parents are taught to equate leaving with success. Unlike most rural teens, these students are not expected to work. Instead, they are lavished with extracurriculars, AP classes, tutoring, and other educational advantages made possible by their parents’ status. It’s not hard to see why these parents are incentivized to provide these; rural communities consume the same media and follow the same state-mandated educational guidelines as everywhere else.

Carr and Kefalas describe their book’s thesis as follows: “Small towns play an unwitting part in their own decline. Teachers, parents, and neighbors feel obligated to push and prod their most talented kids to succeed, yet, when their best and brightest follow their advice, the investment the community has made in them becomes a boon for someplace else, while the remaining young people are neither afforded the same attention nor groomed for success at any time.” Rural brain drain, then, is more than just tech-fueled outmigration, regardless of how it’s framed by WIRED. It begins with a trickle-down education system, modeled on capitalist values of achievement, that favors high-performing students from an early age and leaves the rest of rural America’s youth in the dust. Introducing remote work incentives to attract a few more wealthy people to town won’t do much for West Virginians in poverty, or for the deeper structural issues that keep them there.

Moreover, rural brain cannot be treated as an issue unto itself. Instead, it’s a product of deindustrialization, boom-and-bust resource extraction, destructive neoliberal economic policies, union busting, and agricultural innovation that has cut salaries and jobs. To put it simply: brain drain is more symptom than cause. Airdropping in a few accountants and graphic designers will not address those systemic issues. Paying remote workers to leave the city and move to small towns is a lot like what Carr and Kefalas describe in their research: misappropriating funds to help people who don’t need it. The same system that favors privileged rural kids will now redirect more resources away from the poor from to lure them—or people like them—back. It’s true Silicon Valley logic: short-term disruption trumps sustained community growth.

Ostensibly, 1,000 remote workers will be paid to move to, and stay in, West Virginia over the next five years. But then again, pandemic prognosticators also told us there would be a great migration from coastal cities to the heartland. Yet the escape from New York and D.C. in the spring of 2020 only highlighted stark divides—like when Meaghan Daum wrote about how she decamped to rural Virginia with a puppy for some inadvisable travel and poverty tourism. Daum was dragged by Appalachian activists online; a year later, she’s still defending the essay with talking points that sound a lot like Ascend WV marketing copy. She writes, “I participated in the [local] economy, which is to say I brought groceries and gasoline and probably a little too much wine.” This is a line I’ve heard all my life: from tourists driving through my hometown, from recreational fishermen visiting the coastal Alaskan town where I lived, and, now, from worker relocation program marketing. The same sentiment underpins them all: rural workers should be grateful that we allow them to sell us their goods and services.

 

The bloggers and claims adjusters were quick to return to the coast last summer. One look at the patterns of population change during the pandemic is all you need to know. While New York and San Francisco did lose residents, the people who left didn’t go far. It’s far more likely for the exurbs to expand than for the population to boom in, say, rural McKean County, PA, which is over two hours from a major airport and an hour from the nearest Starbucks.

You can see this reality reflected in Ascend WV’s plan, too. The first three towns deemed “ready” to receive remote workers are all within twenty minutes of the state border. Shepherdstown is practically a D.C. exurb, while Morgantown is only an hour from Pittsburgh and has a stable population, according to recent census data. The third, the small town of Lewisburg, is already a destination getaway due to its proximity to the Greenbrier Resort—which is, conveniently, owned by state governor Jim Justice—and was named “America’s Coolest Small Town” by Budget Travel in 2011. It should be fairly obvious that these are also some of the state’s wealthiest communities. After all, money begets money.

It’s not hard to imagine remote worker relocation programs becoming something akin to gap years for white-collar professionals, a mid-life AmeriCorps, some time spent helping the locals by offering up their spending power before returning to the burbs, possibly flipping a house in the process. But who knows? Maybe some recipients will stick around long enough to send their kids to the local high school, where they will lobby for more AP classes, more college prep for high achievers, maybe even a lacrosse team. I bet at least one recipient will revitalize the economy by opening up a cute coffee shop. There’s probably a grant to help them get started.♦

 

 


Jake Maynard’s fiction and nonfiction appear in Slate, Guernica, Current Affairs, The New York Times, and others. He lives in Pittsburgh and is working on a novel.