Washington, DC, was home to Anela Malik, a food writer, and her husband, Ahmed Zuhairy, a financial crimes analyst, for nearly 10 years before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Suddenly, rather than spending their evenings out at restaurants and at co-worker happy hours, they were stuck in a cramped apartment, frantically Googling where they’d want to live next.
That’s when they spotted a surprising opportunity online that they presumed at first must be a hoax: If they moved to Northwest Arkansas, they’d get paid cash and other incentives totaling $10,000.
This offer—part of the Life Works Here talent incentive by the Northwest Arkansas Council—had been launched in an effort to revitalize the local economy. But rather than attempt the more traditional route of courting large companies to build offices in the area, the council was taking a more piecemeal approach of investing $1 million to lure remote workers one by one, specifically individuals in STEAM fields (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math).
“We had never even considered this region or heard of these programs,” says Malik, who had stumbled upon the initiative through MakeMyMove—an aggregator site that serves as a matchmaker between cities looking to attract new residents and people looking to move.
While Malik had always worked from home, the pandemic had untethered Zuhairy from his office commute. And even though Northwest Arkansas had never been on this couple’s radar before, they saw that it fit all their criteria: easy access to nature, a vibrant restaurant scene, and tons of bike paths for Zuhairy, an avid cyclist.
The $10,000 cherry on top was the extra nudge they needed to make the leap.
“It offered us a chance to move and start fresh, without going in debt,” Malik explains.
The rising popularity of pay-to-move programs
Offer cash, and they will come: That’s the premise inspiring a growing number of towns and cities across the U.S. to attract people willing to pack their bags and settle down in a new area.
MakeMyMove, which was launched in December 2020 with approximately 25 offers nationwide, now has over 50 programs listed, with new packages being offered each week.
The majority of these initiatives—typically run by the local government and funded through a blend of taxpayer money, community development budgets, nonprofit organizations, and donations from companies and individuals—pay residents in the range of $2,000 to $16,000 in cash, with assorted gifts attached. One of the most generous deals is from Lewisburg, WV, which is offering a $20,000 relocation fee, which includes $12,000 in cash and $8,000 in gifts, including outdoor recreation gear and co-working space.
As these packages and perks have proliferated, towns have become creative in drumming up publicity.
Applicants who move to West Lafayette, IN, get not only $5,000 in cash, but also access to local university resources, including libraries, research labs, and discount tuition. Meanwhile, Manilla, IA, is offering up free land and Greensburg, IN, is attempting to attract young families by offering $5,000 along with child care through its “free grandparents” program, populated by elderly volunteers.
All of this sounds pretty sweet for people looking for a change of scenery—provided they meet certain criteria.
“Most of the programs have qualifications tied to their incentive packages, since the purpose of these programs is to enhance and expand the local economy,” says Evan Hock, co-founder of MakeMyMove.
Many have a minimum income requirement and seek applicants who already work remotely, so that they don’t take jobs from people already living there.
Even among those who qualify, the number of “winners” is limited. Established programs like the one in Tulsa, OK, employ more than a dozen staffers to recruit what are now thousands of residents, but fledgling programs may sponsor only a handful of transplants, making it highly competitive to make the cut. When Greensburg, IN, recently posted a $7,000 grant in the hope of attracting five new residents, it received 1,500 applications. The town is now scrambling to expand funding and accept 25 residents instead.
Aside from meeting certain conditions in terms of a job and income, human factors matter, too, something Malik found out when she applied.
“It’s almost like a college application, where you share information about your work, business, family, and write a short statement,” she recalls. “I applied online and sent it off in the middle of the night and just assumed they’d never get back to me. I was thinking tens of thousands of people must have applied.”
Much to her surprise, about six weeks later, she got a letter in the mail informing her she and Zuhairy had been accepted. Now what?
Can you ‘try before you buy’?
Since blindly moving to a new town for a few thousand bucks might seem like quite a gamble, most of these programs highly recommended that applicants visit first. The trip might even be subsidized, as is the case with the West Lafayette, IN, program—which, every month, offers select applicants a travel stipend and a few nights in a local hotel.
“For a lot of the programs, there is a formal ‘try before you buy’ program,” says Hock. “But for the most part, I think people book a couple of nights in an Airbnb, walk around, and see what it’s actually like.”
This is exactly what Malik and Zuhairy did in August 2021, spending two weeks checking out Northwest Arkansas.
After their trip, they decided to accept the offer and signed a contract (which is typical of most programs). By October, they’d secured a rental home in Lowell, AR, and moved in. Although they didn’t see the house until they arrived, except via FaceTime walk-throughs, they’re loving their new life.
“It’s such an upgrade. We’re in a beautiful three-bedroom home, with a yard and the kitchen of my dreams,” says Malik. “We couldn’t afford a house in DC.”
And as for the money they were promised?
Not surprisingly, none of these programs just hands you a suitcase of cash as soon as you step off your moving truck. Malik and Zuhairy were given half upfront, after showing proof that they’d moved; they’ll get the other half six months later. Some require you to stay put for a year before they show you the money.
“For us, the incentive just went toward moving costs, like hiring movers, getting set up. It’s not like we made money,” says Malik.
Hock concurs that moving through these programs is rarely a huge windfall.
“The cash offer that many communities provide may seem like a random figure,” he says, “but it’s actually meant to cover the cost of moving an average American family.”
Why more Americans are moving for money
Although picking up and moving for a little cash might seem drastic, the pandemic has put this possibility within easier reach of the growing number of remote workers. According to a July survey by MakeMyMove of over 1,000 applicants on its site who worked remotely, almost one-third (29%) said they were either “likely” or “somewhat likely” to move in the next 18 months.
As for why, 37% of survey respondents said they wanted to relocate for a lower cost of living. Other reasons included a desire for more affordable housing (31%), more room or a bigger yard (27%), better weather and climate (30%), and a chance to meet new people and make new friends (28%).
How pay-to-move programs help revitalize communities
Traditionally, local revitalization attempts have involved cities courting huge corporations with an array of tax breaks and other incentives to persuade them to open offices or factories in their area.
“This strategy for economic development has been utilized for decades by local economic boards,” says Hock.
Pay-to-move programs are overturning this model. Small towns and cities that never had a hope of attracting a new Google headquarters or an Amazon call center now stand a better chance to attract many of those same employees—and thus build their population and local economy one resident at a time.
“Now, we see economic development happening on an individual employee level,” Hock says.
Cities that redirect their recruitment efforts from companies to individuals often find that this tactic brings many of the same financial benefits. For example, Indiana University analysts found that a remote worker who relocates to Indiana and earns $100,000 a year contributes as much as $83,808 to the local economy, based on direct consumer spending and on the business spending it generates downstream. Analysts also found the very presence of new remote workers created additional jobs in their communities—an all-around win.
“To be honest, I think we’re going to start seeing communities really start competing, not just on the dollar amounts but also on the ease of use and the quality of the welcome wagon when they arrive,” says Hock. “I’m excited to see what’s happening two years from now, after that competition has time to incubate.”