“I wish I was a messenger and all the news was good.”
So do I, buddy, so do I.
Sometimes, though, the news is not good but it still needs to be delivered, too.
Technically, the news I have here isn’t bad, it’s just not as good as we thought it might be. It’s all about managing expectations.
So here’s the deal: We often hear from people (many of them community leaders) the hope that the pandemic will spur a great migration of people out of metro areas and into rural communities that have been losing population.
Has the Age of Zoom (not to be confused with the Age of Aquarius) finally led us to the long-awaited “death of distance”? That was the title of a 2001 book by Frances Cairncross, media editor for The Economist, who wrote about how the internet would change, well, everything. She didn’t necessarily predict that the internet would lead to a rural renaissance, just that it would completely upend trade patterns, and she was sure right about that.
The problem is that technology has led to just the opposite: Instead of rejuvenating rural communities, we’ve seen jobs, people and capital cluster in a relative handful of go-go technopolises. Economic thinkers have talked up the value of “density” – the economic importance of getting a lot of people in the same place to encourage “creative collisions” across industry sectors. That’s great for big metros, maybe even OK for smaller metros, but not so great for rural communities where the only point is to avoid density of anything. (Full disclosure: I write this from the backwoods of Botetourt County where the only density I see at the moment is the gang of goldfinches that have descended on the bird feeder like a bunch of rowdy bikers pulling up to some roadside tavern.)
Last fall, Hamilton Lombard, a demographer with the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, laid out some grim statistics: Rural communities in Virginia are losing population at a faster rate than rural communities in neighboring states. He theorized that’s because Virginia’s rural communities are so close to the booming urban crescent. My phrase, not his: It’s as if the urban crescent acts as a black hole, accelerating the migration of young adults out of rural Virginia.
Lombard did hold out some hope, though. If there’s one thing that can turn around the population exodus from rural Virginia, he said, it’s the prospect of remote workers moving in (or staying put in rural Virginia and finding remote work). He showed off some tantalizing statistics about how many remote workers we already have – all the more tantalizing because those figures were compiled before the pandemic. They showed that one county already had a remote workforce that measured in double digits – 11.8% of the workforce in Nelson County works from home, the highest such percentage in the state. (Lisa Provence has a story that explains why.) Those figures showed several clusters of remote workers arising – generally on the outskirts of Northern Virginia, Richmond and Charlottesville (hence Nelson County), but also a nascent cluster stretching from Bath County to Floyd County and Franklin County. In many of those counties, the percentage of remote workers was already north of 6% pre-pandemic. That’s a significant, and growing, sector of the economy.
Surely those numbers will grow post-pandemic, right? (If only we could get to the post-pandemic part of the program …)
The prospect of universal broadband has only heightened the prospect of a great migration of remote workers. The combination of a pandemic to drive people out of close quarters and the universal broadband to lure them into less-populated places – what could be better for us, right?
Not so fast.
We now have a study by the Pew Research Center that offers some insight into what people are thinking.
On the plus side for us, the percentage of Americans who say they want to live in urban areas is down noticeably – from 23% to 19%.
Strike up the band! Roll out the welcome wagon! Happy days are here again!
Umm, not really.
That same study found that those people who want to decamp from urban centers want to move to … the suburbs. Those figures are up from 42% to 46%.
The percentage of people who want to live in a rural area hasn’t really changed. Technically, it’s even gone down – from 36% to 35%, but that’s within the margin of error so let’s not obsess over that single percentage point.
Instead, we should focus on the big picture: The pandemic apparently hasn’t changed people’s minds about living in rural America. No “Green Acres” here. This is disappointing, to say the least.
Now, maybe it was unrealistic to expect a big tectonic shift in people’s residential preferences to happen so quickly. Still, we hoped for at least some change. And there is some change taking place – it’s just to the benefit of suburbs and not rural areas. Now, maybe we can hope that some people now prefer Forest over Fairfax County, Bonsack over Ballston, but any incremental migratory growth in the Lynchburg or Roanoke metros doesn’t really help the counties we were hoping this would help.
But wait – this just in! Like Pheidippides running to deliver the glorious news from the Battle of Marathon (well, glorious for the victorious Greeks, not so much the Persians), we have some hope, after all. About 19% of Americans currently live in rural areas.
That means – hang on, let me do the math – there’s a 16% gap there between the number of people who want to live in a rural area and those who really do.
This, my friends, is called opportunity.
By that math, it doesn’t really matter whether the pandemic has changed (or not changed) the percentage of people who say they want to live in a rural area. The question is whether it has changed the calculations of those 16% who don’t live in a rural area but say they’d like to. Are they now more likely to consider a change?
The Pew study doesn’t tell us that but you’d think some clever person could figure that out, right? The internet is full of black magic. OK, algorithms, but for those math-challenged persons among us, black magic is a good enough description. Surely someone who knows witchcraft – also known as coding – could figure out a way to target those people with a message about how great it would be to live in, well, pick your favorite county.
We could even use some of that new, fancy rural broadband to help get the word out. Otherwise, we’re just relying on luck.
So, you see, maybe this isn’t bad news, after all. Maybe it’s even, dare I say it, good news?