October 29, 2019; CNN
The George Kaiser Family Foundation’s Tulsa Remote program recently announced they will nearly double in size next year. This means that in 2020, they will pay 250 people $10,000 to move to Tulsa, Oklahoma.
It’s a pretty good deal. The program will pay the money in installments, beginning before you relocate to help with moving expenses. They have a curated list of available apartments to help with the house hunt, and even some special deals. When everyone’s moved in, all participants have free access to a downtown coworking space and regular meetups in the community, aided by volunteers who already live in Tulsa. You only have to stay one year, and the money is yours.
NPQ has previously written about the George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF). Rick Cohen quoted former Senate Finance Committee tax counsel Dean Zerbe’s concerns about the “sweetheart deals” support foundations like GKFF get, and the lack of inquiry into their huge fortunes. (GKFF’s most recent Form 990, from 2017, reports almost $4 million in assets.) More pertinently, in 2017, we noted an effort similar to Tulsa Remote: GKFF spent millions of dollars to beautify and subsidize Tulsa neighborhoods to make them more attractive to Teach for America candidates.
Why the need to pull in Tulsa residents? By many measures, Tulsa is doing just fine. They experienced just over two percent population growth between 2010 and 2018. About a quarter of the population is under 18 years of age, and 30 percent of residents have a college degree. The average yearly cost of rent or a mortgage is at or under one-third of the average median income.
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But Oklahoma struggles in other respects, partly because it has steadfastly refused to raise taxes to cover public expenses. That’s why GKFF spent so much money to attract teachers; Oklahoma’s schools are so underfunded, teachers can get a $40,000 raise just by moving over to Texas. Some schools can only afford to be open four days a week. About 20 percent of Tulsa residents live in poverty; US News & World Report ranks Oklahoma 43rd among US states, and even worse when it comes to providing healthcare.
These are all public problems, fixable by government action. The necessity of money for public programs is unavoidable, and the consequences of its lack are all too visible in the Sooner State. But will Remote Tulsa work on these problems? Probably not.
Remote Tulsa participants are encouraged to move to Tulsa, but not otherwise incentivized to participate in the state’s economic life. They might use the grant money to buy homes, but there’s no program incentive for them to do so, unlike many other relocation incentive programs. And they can’t work for Tulsa employers; to be eligible for the grants, they must work remotely or be self-employed with companies based outside the state. Remote work most available to those without college degrees, such as working for Lyft or DoorDash, doesn’t count.
Other cities and states have also used financial incentives to encourage relocation, but most of them put more restrictions on the money to ensure it is invested in their communities. It can take the form of home loan forgiveness, student debt forgiveness, or help with property investment. Many programs require a stay of five or ten years.
One of the only other programs that just hands out cash is Vermont’s Remote Workers Grant—but Vermont’s population has stagnated, especially on the younger end. Massachusetts has considered a bill to incentivize people to move into the western part of the commonwealth, but supporters say it’s merely to balance out the millions of dollars in tax breaks and other incentives companies receive for locating in Boston. (The distribution of state allocations between metro Boston and the rest of the commonwealth is a perpetual sore spot.)
So why does the GKFF want people to move to Tulsa so badly? They’re deeply committed to Tulsa’s development. They spent nearly $63 million directly or indirectly supporting the Tulsa Community Foundation in 2017, whose CEO is also GKFF’s chair. TCF, in turn, encourages local planned giving and corporate funder development in the community. But all of these initiatives reinforce a trend NPQ has covered often, that of substituting vast private wealth for public engagement and investment. Yearlong stays in Tulsa aren’t likely to fix that.—Erin Rubin