Over the last four years, more than 2,000 people have moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma because of Tulsa Remote, a program sponsored by the George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF) that pays remote workers $10,000 to move. It was one of the most widely publicized bids by a city to become a hub for remote work — and so far, it’s succeeding, according to two recent studies of the program. The remote workers who moved to Tulsa have a higher standard of living than they had before, they’re engaged in their new community, and most plan to stay.
Tulsa Remote is a case study in how remote work can shift economic development, and it paints a hopeful picture for smaller cities. But there are outstanding questions about the program, too. Has the arrival of remote workers benefitted the city as a whole? Can Tulsa remain a draw for remote workers if other cities copy its model? And, perhaps most importantly, how many remote workers want to move in the first place?
How Tulsa Remote Works
The Tulsa metro area is home to one million people, but its population growth has been slower than many other midsize cities in recent years. Its economy specializes in oil and gas, aerospace, and manufacturing. It doesn’t have much in the way of a technology sector, and it has a smaller share of residents with a college degree than the U.S. as a whole.
What it does have is a lower cost of living compared to other cities. Housing in Tulsa costs about one fifth the price of housing in Los Angeles or New York.
The theory of Tulsa Remote was that with a little enticement, remote workers would be drawn to lower living costs. And by attracting remote workers, Tulsa could bring in new residents and income — and even plant the seeds of its own knowledge sector.
Claire Tomm decided to apply to Tulsa Remote after hearing about it from a friend who’d participated. “I started to get envious,” she said.
Tomm and her husband had decided their family needed a change after some personal tragedies. So she filled out a brief application, interviewed with a Tulsa native over Zoom, and was accepted after a background check. She visited with her husband and two young kids, met other program participants via Slack, and decided to go for it. The family sold their house in Madison, Wisconsin, and six months after being accepted into the program, they arrived in Tulsa.
Three months after the move, Tomm switched jobs; she now works for a company in Michigan as a UX and design consultant. The job came with a raise, which was amplified by the lower cost of living. In July, she and her husband bought a house.
Tomm’s experience is not unusual. In a recent study, Prithwiraj Choudhury, a professor at Harvard Business School who studies remote work, found that Tulsa Remoters have higher real incomes (after accounting for living costs) than they did before the move — likely driven in large part by cheaper housing. The participants report no decrease in productivity since moving.
To analyze Tulsa Remote, Choudhury surveyed workers who moved as part of the program and compared them to two similar cohorts: those who applied to the program but weren’t accepted, and those who applied and were accepted but weren’t able to complete the move for idiosyncratic reasons (like a family member getting sick). Although the groups aren’t exactly comparable, the idea was that the differences between them provide decent estimates of how Tulsa Remote has affected those involved.
Tulsa Remote participants were more likely to say they intend to stay where they currently live than the candidates who were accepted but didn’t end up moving. They’re also more likely to report engagement in their local community. Some of that difference could reflect a limit of the survey: Maybe the people who were accepted to Tulsa Remote but weren’t able to move are uniquely disengaged from their current communities, and so aren’t the right baseline.
Even so, the report is good news for Tulsa Remote, and Choudhury thinks there’s a simple reason why the program’s participants are more involved. “The answer seems to be they have more time to do almost everything,” he said in an interview, because they spend less time commuting. “They are spending some of that time volunteering in the local community. It’s a win-win.”
A second analysis by the Economic Innovation Group, a think tank, estimated Tulsa Remote’s effect on the city’s economy using standard models of economic development. The researchers estimate that one new full-time job was created in Tulsa for every two Remoters who moved there. And they estimate every dollar spent on the program creates $13 in economic activity.
“It’s a highly cost-effective intervention relative to other economic development tools,” said Daniel Newman, an analyst at EIG who worked on the study.
As well as things are going so far, Tulsa Remote raises a big question that crops up in any plan to attract new companies or industries: Why not just give the money to Tulsa’s existing citizens? (To its credit, GKFF has other programs focused on poverty alleviation, racial equity, and job creation in Tulsa.)
The standard answer is that knowledge-sector jobs that can be done remotely are high-paying and tend to have spillovers to the local community — at least when housing costs don’t rise enough to cancel out those benefits. That’s the logic that leads EIG’s models to estimate such a high payoff for Tulsa Remote. Remote workers have high-paying jobs, and that income trickles out into Tulsa as they spend it.
Andre Perry, a researcher at Brookings who studies urban development and inequality, supports the basic idea of attracting knowledge workers but cautions that it doesn’t always deliver.
“In my hometown in Wilkinsburg, [part of the Pittsburgh metro area], there were a lot of promises made that the recruitment of tech talent would impact other places besides the city [of Pittsburgh],” he said in an interview. “That just didn’t happen. I do think it had potential to happen.”
As Perry writes in his 2020 book Know Your Price, the success of local economic development programs requires bridge-building across communities within a city and the involvement of local residents in the planning process. That’s especially true when the program involves attracting outsiders.
GKFF says it works hard to ensure that Remoters will be active in and connected to local communities, and it considers these factors when screening applicants. Though Remoters have higher paying jobs than the average Tulsa resident, they roughly mirror the city’s racial makeup. The program organizes events and outings, and encourages Remoters to participate in local civic programs.
Tomm now volunteers for a tutoring program called Reading Partners. Luke Scuitto, who moved to Tulsa from Washington, DC in 2020 and works remotely for a nonprofit, also connected to the local community through volunteer work. His work at Tulsa’s Equality Center led to an additional part-time job and helped him meet more members of the community. “I feel very a part of Tulsa now,” he said.
Tulsa Remote also compares favorably to one of the other staples of local development: Cutting taxes to attract companies. Yes, the program involves cutting checks to mostly well-educated, well-paid knowledge workers. But it is likely less regressive than the all-too-common strategy of cutting taxes to lure corporations.
The Future of Remote Work
Tulsa Remote is not the only program of its kind — the state of Vermont announced a much-publicized subsidy along the same lines in 2018 — and its success will ensure that it isn’t the last. The question is whether Tulsa can continue to attract remote workers when it has to compete with, say, Wichita, Kansas or Omaha, Nebraska. There are lots of smaller cities that can offer inexpensive housing. And as effective as the GKFF’s $10,000 stipends have been, it’s not sustainable to get in a bidding war with other cities to lure workers.
But for now, that question counts as a good problem to have. With the pandemic easing, work-from-home declining, and some companies pushing for a return to the office, Tulsa’s main competition might not be Wichita and Omaha but New York and Chicago.
In September 2022, EIG released another study of remote work, this one reporting which cities had the highest share of work done from home. The list wasn’t topped by new remote hubs like Tulsa, but by Washington, DC, San Francisco, and Austin. The so-called “superstar cities” are still winning, both for in-office jobs and even for work-from-home.
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