In the past four years, more than 2,000 people have relocated to Tulsa, Oklahoma thanks to Tulsa Remote, a program sponsored by the George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF) that pays workers $10,000 to relocate. It’s one of the most widely publicized bids by a city to become a hub for remote work — and so far, it’s been successful, according to two new studies of the program. Remote workers who have moved to Tulsa have a higher standard of living than before, they are engaged in their new community, and most plan to stay.
Tulsa Remote is a case study in how remote work can drive economic growth, and it paints an optimistic picture for small towns. But there are unique questions about the program, too. Does the arrival of remote workers benefit 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 are willing to work 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 the technology sectorand it has a smaller share of residents with a college degree than the US as a whole.
It has a lower cost of living compared to other cities. Housing in Tulsa costs about a fifth of the price of housing in Los Angeles or New York.
Tulsa Remote’s theory is that with a little persuasion, remote workers will be attracted to the lower cost of living. And by attracting remote workers, Tulsa can 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 was participating. “I started to get jealous,” he said.
Tomm and her husband decided that their family needed a change after some personal tragedies. So he filled out a short application, was interviewed by a Tulsa native on Zoom, and was accepted after a background check. She visited her husband and two young children, met other participants in the program through Slack, and decided to go for it. The family sold their home in Madison, Wisconsin, and six months after being accepted into the program, they arrived in Tulsa.
Three months after the move, Tomm changed jobs; he currently works for a company in Michigan as a UX and design consultant. Employment came with an increase, boosted by a lower cost of living. In July, she and her husband bought a house.
Tomm’s experience was not unique. on recent studyPrithwiraj Choudhury, a professor at Harvard Business School who study distance work, found that Tulsa Remoters have higher real incomes (after accounting for living expenses) than they did before the move — likely driven in large part by more affordable housing. Participants reported no decrease in productivity since the transition.
To analyze Tulsa Remote, Choudhury surveyed workers who moved as part of the program and compared them to two similar groups: those who applied to the program but were not accepted, and those who applied and were accepted but did not complete the move. for extraordinary reasons (such as a family member being sick). Although the groups are not exactly comparable, the idea is that the differences between them provide a decent estimate of how Tulsa Remote affected those involved.
Tulsa Remote participants were more likely to say they wanted to stay where they currently live than candidates who were accepted but did not move. They are also more likely to report engagement in their local community. Some of that difference may reflect a limitation of the survey: Perhaps people who were accepted into Tulsa Remote but did not move were unusually distant from their current communities, and therefore not the right baseline.
Still, the report is good news for Tulsa Remote, and Choudhury thinks there’s a simple reason why program participants are so engaged. “The answer seems to be that they have more time to do almost everything,” he said in an interview, because they have less time to commute. “They spend some time volunteering in the local community. It’s a win-win.”
A second analysis by the Economic Innovation Group, a think tank, estimated the impact of Tulsa Remote on the city’s economy using standard models of economic development. Researchers estimate that one new full-time job is created in Tulsa for every two Remoters who move there. And they estimate every dollar spent on the program generates $13 in economic activity.
“This is a very effective intervention relative to other economic development tools,” said Daniel Newman, an EIG analyst who worked on the study.
As things go, Tulsa Remote raises a big question that comes with 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 basic answer is that knowledge sector jobs that can be done remotely are high paying and likely to be spillovers in the local community — at least if housing costs don’t rise enough to cancel out the benefits. That’s the logic that led EIG’s models to estimate such high fees for Tulsa Remote. Remote workers have high-paying jobs, and that income flows into Tulsa as they spend it.
Andre Perry, a Brookings researcher who studies urban development and inequality, supports the basic idea of attracting knowledge workers but warns that this does not always work.
“In my hometown of Wilkinsburg, [part of the Pittsburgh metro area]there are many promises made that the recruitment of tech talents will affect other areas besides the city [of Pittsburgh],” he said in an interview. “That just didn’t happen. I think it has potential happen.”
As Perry wrote in his 2020 book Know Your Price, the success of local economic development programs requires bridge building with communities within a municipality and the participation of local residents in the planning process. That is especially true if the program involves attracting outsiders.
The GKFF says it works hard to ensure Remoters can be active and connected to local communities, and considers these factors in screening applicants. Although Remoters hold 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 currently volunteers for a mentoring program called Reading Partners. Luke Scuitto, who moved to Tulsa from Washington, DC in 2020 and works remotely for a nonprofit, is also connected to the local community through volunteer work. Her work at Tulsa’s Equality Center led to an additional part-time job and helped her meet many members of the community. “I feel a part of Tulsa now,” he said.
Tulsa Remote also contrasts favorably with one of the other staples of local development: Tax breaks to attract companies. Yes, the program involves cutting the checks of most educated, well-paid knowledge workers. But it’s probably less regressive than the all-too-common strategy of cutting taxes to attract corporations.
The Future of Remote Work
Tulsa Remote isn’t the only program of its kind — the state of Vermont has announced a much-publicized one subsidies in the same line in 2018 – and its success will ensure that it will not be 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 many small towns that provide affordable housing. And as effective as GKFF’s $10,000 stipends are, it’s not sustainable to compete with other cities to attract workers.
But for now, that question is considered a good problem to have. With the end of the pandemic, reduced work-from-home, and some companies pushing to return to the office, Tulsa’s main competition may not be Wichita and Omaha but New York and Chicago.
In September 2022, EIG released another study on remote work, which reports which cities have the highest share of work done from home. The list does not primarily include new remote hubs such as Tulsa, but Washington, DC, San Francisco, and Austin. The so-called “superstar cities” are still winning, for office jobs and even for work from home.