Our Number Is Up
The state's population expert says Texas needs to prepare for the day when Hispanics are the majority, but the politicians aren't listening.
ONE THING IS CERTAIN ABOUT the upcoming election: It will not determine Texas’ future. Here we are, just a few weeks shy of Election Day, and nobody running for office even wants to look as far ahead as January, when the Legislature will have to deal with a $5 billion budget shortfall (or is it $10 billion?), much less talk about what the state might need to do down the road. The media is complicit in this conspiracy of avoidance; reporters speculate about whether Texas will elect its first black senator or Hispanic governor, both of them Democrats, on the home turf of the president of the United States, and whether the state Democratic party is still viable, and how big the brand-new Republican majorities will be in each house of the Legislature, and whether Pete Laney, the canny Democratic Speaker of the House, can win a record sixth term despite the swelling GOP ranks in the Capitol.
Enough! None of these things has the slightest ability to determine the state’s future for the simple reason that the future has already been determined. You won’t hear much talk about it in the current campaign; rather than talk about the future, politicians find it safer to talk about the past and their opponents’ misdeeds of yore. But Steve H. Murdock will talk about the future, a subject he probably knows more about than anyone in Texas. He is not a politician, but he does hold an office of sorts: He is the official state demographer, a position created by the Legislature in 2001.
Murdock is the head of the Department of Rural Sociology at—where else?—Texas A&M. Much of the department’s work involves agriculture, nutrition, and other rural matters; faculty research includes such topics as “Factors Affecting Successful Dairy Farming in Texas,” “Chocolate and Loneliness in the Elderly,” and “Effects of Aircraft Overflights on Wilderness Recreationalists.” But in the past two decades the department has moved heavily into Texas demography, the study of population change and its impact on the state. Murdock estimates that he makes around eighty to a hundred presentations a year—to business leaders, to policymakers, to school superintendents, to chambers of commerce—deciphering the data from the latest U.S. census to project what Texas will be like in ten years. Even forty.
Most Texans know the basic story line by now: The state is becoming more Hispanic and growing older. But the totality of the change has yet to be grasped—unless you have heard Murdock explain his tables and charts. Then you realize, as I did, that this is the year of demographic inevitability, the moment when the numbers demonstrate beyond refutation that Texas is headed for being a Hispanic-majority state in the lifetime of most Texans under forty. Murdock can throw pages and pages of numbers at you, but the most dramatic are these: In 1980 almost two thirds of all Texans were Anglo. In 2000, in a state of 20.8 million people, the Anglo majority was down to a little over half. If the net immigration rate remains at current levels, Texas’ population in 2040 would be approximately 50.5 million. That’s almost 30 million new Texans, and Murdock projects that just 1.1 million of them will be Anglos—less than 4 percent. Twenty-three million, or 78 percent, will be Hispanic. The result will be a population that is 59 percent Hispanic and 24 percent Anglo, with “Other” (mainly Asians) passing blacks as the state’s third-largest ethnic category.
But what if immigration were to stop entirely? Then the state’s 2040 population would show a much smaller rise, to just 25 million, based on the natural increase in births over deaths, and Hispanics would account for all of the increase, while the Anglo population would decline by 10 percent. Even without the benefit of a single immigrant, Hispanics would still be the largest ethnic group in Texas.
Ethnic makeup is only one indicator of how the population picture of Texas is changing. Here are other areas that Murdock is tracking:
Where we live. More than 13 million people reside in the regions anchored by Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Austin-San Antonio. The biggest population gains during the decade belonged to the Austin area (46 percent) and the Lower Rio Grande Valley (40 percent). Another 3.7 million live in suburbs, where the population grew in the nineties at a rate of 45 percent. The band of counties surrounding the central cities has the highest per capita income in Texas. But the state’s two largest cities showed slower rates of growth in income than the state as a whole. Why isn’t anybody but Murdock worried about a slowing down of the state’s leading economic engines?
Where we don’t live. During a decade when the state as a whole grew by nearly 23 percent, amounting to 3.9 million people (more than the population of 24 states), a lot of Texas got left behind, especially middle-sized cities in East and West Texas and the regions around them. West Texas had the lowest growth rates: 1.59 percent for the Permian Basin, the worst in the state, while the Lubbock, Abilene, and San Angelo regions failed to reach 5 percent. There’s a lot of rural sociology going on out there.
How we are aging. In 1950 the median age in Texas was 27.9 years. By 1980 it had increased to 28. In 2000 it was 32.3 years. This is due to the baby boomers, of course, the first group of whom is now 52 to 56 years old. The Hispanic population is much younger. Large numbers of Anglos will be reaching retirement age at about the time that Hispanics will be making ever-increasing demands on the public schools and local school budgets, which is why the Texas Association of School Boards invited Murdock to make a presentation last summer.
How the labor force will change. Today it is 64 percent Anglo and 22 percent Hispanic. By 2030 it will be 45 percent Hispanic and 37 percent Anglo. Currently 25 percent of the workforce has no high school diploma; by 2030 Murdock expects that number to rise to 35 percent. A state cannot prosper with an uneducated workforce.
How well off we will be. More bad news: Murdock shows the average household income for 2000 at $45,736 (in 1998 dollars) and declining about a thousand dollars a decade thereafter, to $42,620 in 2030.
Okay, enough of the numbers. What do they mean? They mean that if current trends continue, Texas is going to have that long-envisioned Hispanic majority, and in greater numbers than most of us had realized. They mean that unless Texas does a better job of educating its non-Anglo population than it is doing now, too many people will remain mired in poverty. They mean that as baby boomers leave the workforce for retirement, their ability to pay the taxes necessary to address the state’s problems will dwindle, and there won’t be enough high-wage earners to replace them. They mean that millions of future wage earners will lack the skills to hold a decent-paying job. They mean that a lot of Texans of all races are going to face tough times in the rural areas west of Interstate 35 and perhaps east of Interstate 45 as well.
But you wouldn’t know any of this from the current political discourse. It would be nice, just once, if somebody in this crowd that wants so much to hold high office would talk about how to make Texas a better place. Instead, Rick Perry decries Tony Sanchez’s banking misadventures of two decades ago, and Sanchez talks about Perry’s dalliances with Enron, and John Cornyn thinks Ron Kirk should have supported the nomination of Texas Supreme Court justice Priscilla Owen to the federal appeals bench, and David Dewhurst wants you to believe that John Sharp is a bad ol’ liberal, and no doubt Kirk and Sharp will say some terrible things about their accusers if they can raise enough money to do so. When did being for something go out of fashion?
The issues raised by Steve Murdock are the most important questions facing Texas. How are the Texans of today going to prepare the Texans of tomorrow to learn to read and to qualify for good jobs? Increasing the socioeconomic opportunities for the non-Anglo population is not a liberal issue or a conservative issue; it isn’t a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. It is a survival issue for Texas.
A good place to start would be in the next legislative session, the budget shortfall notwithstanding. For the moment, at least, the problem is not a lack of money but a lack of will even to mention the subject. The time-honored tactic of paving the way for major public-policy initiatives is for a governor to appoint a blue-ribbon committee, put someone with some clout in charge (like Ross Perot, who manhandled a reluctant Legislature into education reform in 1984), and send him around the state. Some people who come to mind are Lieutenant Governor Bill Ratliff, who will return to being a state senator when his term expires in January, Henry Cisneros, and Tom Luce, Perot’s lawyer in the 1984 drive for education reform.
Remember the numbers: 96 percent of the net increase in the state’s population will be non-Anglo. “How well they do,” says Murdock, “will determine how well Texas will do.”