The darker the county, the greater the percentage of the workforce that is working from home. Courtesy of Hamilton Lombard.

The knights of King Arthur sought The Holy Grail. Explorers through the years have quested for other mythical goals – El Dorado, the Northwest Passage, the Fountain of Youth. Every National Football League team seeks that most elusive of all creatures – the franchise quarterback.

More often than not, these quests have ended in vain.

Are rural localities about to be equally disappointed as they set out on their own quest – to lure remote workers?

I sure hope not. But I also hope there really is such a thing as the Loch Ness monster. In a fact-based world, though, I must concede that there probably isn’t some prehistoric denizen of the deep swimming around in a Scottish lake, and that the great rural renaissance built on a historic migration of remote workers may be just as mythical, at least based on the statistics so far.

The confluence of four things has prompted many rural localities to look to remote workers as a way to reverse population declines.

First, the pandemic at least temporarily moved a lot of work into virtual spaces – and a lot of workers (and some companies) have learned that working remotely has some undeniable advantages. For workers: no commute time and you can live wherever you want as long as there’s a broadband connection. For companies: less need for expensive office space and potentially a broader talent pool if you’re no longer limited by geography. (I know one remote worker in Roanoke whose boss is in Connecticut and whose co-worker is in Australia. We here at Cardinal all work remotely, so we get to tell donors that their dollars don’t get siphoned off to landlords, they go directly toward supporting journalism. Sorry, landlords.)

Second, the census has put into numbers what we knew already: Every locality in Virginia west of Radford lost population during the past decade, and so did most of those in Southside. The demographic crisis in rural Virginia has finally reached such a proportion that now even legislators from Northern Virginia are recognizing this is a problem for the whole state. At last month’s Senate Finance Committee retreat in Roanoke, legislators heard a presentation on the economic and demographic challenges facing rural Virginia, prompting state Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William County, to declare, “I think this is an all-hands-on-deck effort.”

Third, the federal infrastructure law contains $65 billion for broadband internet. For the first time, it’s now realistic to imagine a rural Virginia where everyone has access to the internet. Gov. Ralph Northam says Virginia can now achieve universal coverage by 2024, four years ahead of schedule. This is the modern-day equivalent of rural electrification in the 1930s. It’s difficult to overstate what a game-changer this will be. (I’ll confess some bias on this topic. I’m one of those people who doesn’t have broadband. To get enough internet power to upload photos to Cardinal News, I sometimes have to drive to the Fincastle library and sit in my car in the parking lot to mooch off the public Wi-Fi. I’m not alone; I’ve seen others parked there to get access to Wi-Fi, as well.)

Fourth, a talk given by demographer Hamilton Lombard of the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia has crystallized all these trends. In November, he spoke to the Governor’s Summit on Rural Prosperity at Longwood University in Farmville. He laid out some grim statistics: Virginia’s rural communities are losing population at a faster rate than neighboring states, probably because they’re so close to the urban crescent, which acts as a kind of black hole pulling in young adults. The result: Virginia has the biggest disparity between its most affluent counties and its poorest of any state in the country. (You can read more about what he said and see the charts here.) But at the end, Lombard offered this hope: that if more people started working remotely, that had the potential to reverse all those trends. No wonder that when statistics about remote workers were presented at the Senate Finance retreat, state Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County, piped up to say: “I will definitely be for that.”

There is undeniably a trend toward working remotely, and it seems clear that this trend will outlast the pandemic and may be one of the few good things to come out of this whole horrid experience. And we are certainly hearing lots of anecdotal stories of urban refugees who are turning up in Southwest and Southside. “We’ve gotten a tremendous amount of calls from people who want to build homes in Grayson,” Grayson County Administrator Bill Shepley has said. The president of the chamber of commerce in Bluefield says the same thing. “I can tell you with certainty that I have personally spoken to a lot of people from the New York area who are trying to relocate to our area,” Jeff Dissibio told the Bluefield Daily Telegraph in October.

So it seems like the rural renaissance is starting to happen, right? Maybe, maybe not.

Now, I hate to be Debbie Downer – my apologies to all the Debbies of the world – but the statistics don’t yet support any kind of massive Zoom-based migration. As the British like to say, one swallow does not a spring make. On the contrary, the Census Bureau says fewer people are moving than any time in 74 years. Between March 2020 and March 2021, only 8.4% of Americans changed their residence. That’s the smallest share for any year since the Census Bureau started tracking such numbers in 1947. “These statistics do not negate the reporting of pandemic-related permanent or temporary movement for specific areas as suggested by real estate, moving, and survey data,” says demographer William Frey of The Brooking Institute. “However, during the pandemic, mobility declined enough among broad segments of the population – related to factors such as postponements of births and marriages as well as declining job opportunities – to lead to this historic migration low.”

In fact, he points out, domestic migration has been dropping steadily since 1982, when it was slightly more than 20%. “There is still the possibility that, when the pandemic eventually subsides, ‘catch-up’ migration could occur, perhaps bucking the now long-term decline in the nation’s population movement,” he says. But it hasn’t happened yet.

Sorry. I wish it were otherwise.

Now we come to an even more difficult part of this conversation: What if this great migration of remote workers doesn’t happen? At least for Southwest and Southside? A recent forecast by the real estate brokerage Redfin contained this curious – and worrisome – prediction: “After the Supreme Court decides contentious cases related to abortion rights and gun rights, we will see more migration for political reasons. A recent Redfin survey confirms that a substantial share of homebuyers won’t move to a place where the laws conflict with their political beliefs.”

Redfin’s forecast went on to say: “Now that workers have more control over where they live, more people will seek out areas where there are like minded people with laws that fit their political beliefs. People who prefer to live in areas without mask and vaccine mandates will leave cities like New York and Los Angeles. People who are against voter-ID laws will move to places where voting is more accessible. People who are pro-choice will avoid states with restrictive abortion laws. We will also see more blue enclaves grow within red areas and vice versa, as parents select school districts that align with their preferences regarding mask mandates, critical race theory and other controversial issues.” 

If Redfin were some TV talk show host, I’d be inclined to ignore this because those talking heads get paid to say outrageous things – but a business making economic forecasts is probably a lot more grounded in reality. So while this may be a prediction, it seems one we might want to pay more attention to. We’ve already seen what author Bill Bishop has called “the big sort” – he has a book by that name. In short, we’re seeing people cluster by beliefs. On the one hand, that’s not a bad thing – people should be able to live where they want. On the other hand, something like that happened back in 1861 and you see how that worked out. To further polarize our society probably isn’t a good thing.

So how does all this relate to remote workers? Consider this: If we’re talking about people moving from metros to rural areas, we’re probably talking about liberals moving to conservative communities. Now, we might all be able to name some conservative with a laptop who has decamped to the countryside, but, mathematically speaking, most metro areas vote strongly Democratic. If we’re talking migration out of metros, we’re talking about a population that is primarily left-of-center.

This Redfin report raises the question of whether left-leaning office workers are going to want to pick up their computers and move to conservative areas. If not, then that greatly reduces the opportunities for those conservative rural areas to benefit from any migration of remote workers. Maybe only the conservatives will relocate and maybe that will be enough, maybe more than enough, to make a difference demographically.

Let’s take an absurd example just to make the point: Arlington is one of the most Democratic localities in the state. In this year’s governor’s race, Terry McAuliffe took just under 77% of the vote there, with just under 23% for Glenn Youngkin. Still, that was 21,548 votes for Youngkin. If all 21,548 of them wanted to move and work remotely, that would be enough to change the demographics in large parts of Southwest and Southside. Since 1980, Buchanan County has lost 17,634 people. If all those conservatives moved from Arlington, they could erase that population deficit just like that – and make Buchanan even more conservative.

But we all know that’s not how the world works. Let’s take that 8.4% migration figure the Census Bureau reported and apply that to our test subject of Arlington. Arlington has a population of 238,634 – 8.4% of that would be 20,045. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that all those 20,045 people really want to move. What are the odds that all of them are going to be conservatives? Not very good, right? Mathematically speaking, most are going to be liberals. How many of them are going to want to move to a conservative area? We can say that shouldn’t matter – that our quality of life should override all that. Our greenways. Our hiking trails. Our lower taxes and less hectic lifestyle. But what if people start to regard a community’s politics as part of the quality of life? If so, that means the innate conservatism of rural communities is going to make them a lot less desirable for a lot of these remote workers. I’m not suggesting people should change their politics – that’s pretty personal – but I am suggesting that this coming rural renaissance may not be as sure a thing as some might think.

We do see a cluster of remote workers in the rural areas around Charlottesville – Nelson County has the state’s highest percentage of remote workers, with 11.7% of the workforce tapping in from home. (We have a story about that here.) If remote workers are mostly left of center, it’s one thing for them to set up in the woods outside Charlottesville (which went 83% Democratic in the governor’s race) than it is to move to Carroll County (which went 83% Republican). Some might say, “Well, sure, but that’s not a fair comparison. Charlottesville has a lot more amenities than Carroll, so of course more people are going to want to move to the rural areas around Charlottesville than out in the middle of nowhere.” But what if one of those amenities is political? What if someone is quite fine not having a Starbucks on every corner, but can’t stand seeing a Confederate flag flapping in the breeze? What if we’ve entered a new phrase of redlining – in which certain people rule out living in a politically red county just as some might rule out living in a blue one?

The chief economist at Redfin, Daryl Fairweather, believes we already have. “We know people are leaving blue counties and moving to red counties” and vice versa, she told Yahoo News, citing studies the company has done. “I think this will start to happen at the state level and at the neighborhood level. After next year’s midterm elections, we’ll be able to see if neighborhoods become more polarized.”

This kind of self-segregation by ideology doesn’t seem good for our civic health. It breeds extremism by eliminating the political necessity of compromise; it estranges us from our fellow citizens. It also doesn’t seem good for localities in Southwest and Southside that are waiting for an influx of remote workers moving in from Northern Virginia.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.