RURAL TEXAS EVOLVES TO MATCH ECONOMIC GROWTH
Texas is growing fast, but our population growth is far from uniform. For decades, many of the state’s urban areas have boomed while its rural areas have gotten lonelier.
> Between 1980 and 2010, Texas’ total population increased by 76.7 percent, from about 14.2 million to more than 25 million, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. But our metropolitan areas were responsible for nearly all of the increase, with most growth concentrated in the “Texas Triangle,” the area bounded by Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio, and in the fast-growing cities along the border. Many rural counties, by contrast, have been losing population steadily for decades, due primarily to declining employment in agriculture and the industries it supports.
“This is a long-term phenomenon,” says Dr. Steve Murdock, professor of sociology at Rice University and a former Census director. “Texas first became less than half rural in 1950. In the last decade, we had the largest total population increase in Texas history, and yet we had about 10 more declining counties than in the previous decade. And almost all of them are in rural Texas.”
Still other rural counties will prove to be exceptions due to some competitive advantage, such as tourism, the oil and gas boom in the Eagle Ford Shale or the presence of retirement communities.
“In areas that are more economically diverse, there’s more chance that they’ll continue to grow,” Murdock says. “Rural Texas will not disappear. But the rural Texas based on agriculture, the stereotypical small town of feed stores and so forth, will continue to struggle.”
Texas has 25 Census-defined metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) that encompass 77 counties. In all, those counties averaged growth of 88.2 percent between 1980 and 2010, and today account for 88 percent of the state’s total population. The population of the state’s 177 rural counties, by contrast, rose by just 22.6 percent during the same period.
All of Texas’ MSAs gained population over 30 years, but at wildly varying rates. The five-county Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos MSA led the state in 30-year growth, with an eye-popping population increase of more than 193 percent. The Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington MSA ranked fourth at 111 percent.
But the top five slots were dominated by cities in the Border region. The booming McAllen-Edinburg-Mission MSA nearly equaled Austin’s growth rate, at 173.5 percent. Laredo came in third, with 152 percent growth, while the Brownsville-Harlingen MSA was fifth with a 93.7 percent increase.
“The Valley in particular isn’t a very rural area anymore,” says Murdock. “Those aren’t little towns anymore, they are very large. The lower Rio Grande Valley has 1.2 million people in it, and it is likely to continue to grow.”
But 16 of the 25 metro areas grew at a pace slower than the overall state average of 76.7 percent, and two, Wichita Falls and Beaumont-Port Arthur, registered relatively anemic single-digit growth rates (9.7 percent and 3.5 percent, respectively).
Only one MSA experiencing slower-than-average growth, Waco, lies inside the Texas Triangle, while only one metro area in the Border region, El Paso, grew more slowly than the state average.
Spaces now wider, more open
Growth patterns were very different in Texas’ 177 rural counties. Only 12 of them exceeded the state average for population growth, and those dozen counties are within commuting distance of at least one metro area. Thirteen rural counties grew by less than 5 percent over 30 years, and 78 rural counties, mostly in West Texas and the Panhandle, lost residents.
Urban sprawl and the popularity of bedroom communities are drawing many rural counties into nearby fast-growing metro areas, particularly if they lie in or near the Texas Triangle.
“If I had said, 30 years ago, that it wouldn’t be long before you’d be able to drive from Plano to McKinney and never be outside of an urbanized area, you’d have said I was dreaming,” Murdock says. “But it’s true today, because the area has become populated by commuters and the employees of businesses serving them.” TR