In 1997 when demographer Steve H. Murdock published his first book, The Texas Challenge, he was a Cassandra of sorts. He predicted the rise of the Hispanic majority, and he spoke early and often about the implications such a demographic shift would have on Texas’s economy. His devotion to the topic positioned him as a heavy hitter in policy circles and eventually led to his appointment as Texas’s inaugural state demographer, in 2001. In 2008 he became director of the U.S. Bureau of the Census, a post he held until 2009.
Now Murdock has published his third book on the subject, Changing Texas: Implications of Addressing or Ignoring the Texas Challenge, a 256-page study of the latest data and what it means for the state. Texas Monthly writer-at-large Michael Ennis said the dense tome “may be the most important book about Texas published in years,” because it demonstrates how various social and economic disparities among non-Hispanic whites and blacks and Hispanics could spell economic disaster for future generations of Texans.
We asked Murdock, who is currently the director of Rice University’s Hobby Center for the Study of Texas, what it’s like to deliver bad news, why he stays above the political fray, and how he remains cheery while staring at a relatively bleak future.
Jeff Salamon: I’m assuming you go out and give presentations to private sector business groups. When you tell them that our present is not as healthy as it looks and our future looks even worse, how do they react?
Steve Murdock: Twenty-five years ago, I would get lots of people telling me that it wasn’t that way, that I wasn’t correct. I would have people come up to me, and some were very angry that I would suggest there would be these kinds of changes. I would get told that the population would never change in the manner in which it has.
But recently I spoke to a statewide business group, and they were one of the most receptive audiences, one of the ones with the most focused attention that I’ve had in any audience in the past couple of years. And afterward I had a flood of people coming up to say, “Yes, you’re really right about this—we’ve got an issue with this. It’s tough to get educated employees that have the skills that we need; we need to do a better job on education.” Business and small-business people are aware of these changes and very much see the socioeconomic implications playing out in their communities.
JS: I’m assuming you go out and give presentations to Texas politicians as well. When you tell them the same thing, how do they react?
SM: While I think there are still some who deny, there are many more—a majority on both sides of the aisle—that recognize the demographic realities. Where the differences come is, what do we do about it? And whenever you get to education as a factor, which they recognize is a very important factor, then you get into very difficult discussions of different views on education, and whether it’s the schools that are at fault or whether we should do more or less testing, whether we should have various kinds of programs, etc. The politicians’ reaction to the demographics is pretty much reflective of the population as a whole, but with some defensiveness, because they’ve been the ones on the frontline of trying to address some of the implications [demographic changes] have had in things like education.
JS: I get the sense that you have to tread very carefully in what you say. In the preface to the book you write, “We take no stand concerning what paths should be followed. . . . We do, however, believe that objective information, when appropriately analyzed, suggests that governmental and private-sector policies will have different socioeconomic effects on diverse population groups with implications for the future of Texas.” Those are a lot of words that go way out of their way to say almost nothing concrete. Why is your job such a politically sensitive one?
SM: Because I think—based on my experience from a career of doing this—that the minute you fall into the partisan part of the process and you start saying, “You should do X, you should do Y,” two things tend to happen. One is you immediately turn off whoever views it from the opposite perspective—turn them off in the sense of not having them look at the data as objectively and clearly as they might otherwise do. And I think you lose the potential to influence with facts and data. I think too many social scientists, too many scientists of all kinds, make the mistake of going beyond their expertise to make recommendations that may extend beyond their knowledge. For example, although I believe education is a very important thing and increasing the education of all Texans is one of the ways that we decrease the disparities and increase incomes and increase the money that will be available for public services and for private-sector growth, when it gets to which particular programs should do it, that’s expertise beyond what I have. I think I’m better and more listened to if I’m seen as a purveyor of objective information in an area in which I have expertise than if I were to stray off into making suggestions about things for which I don’t have any particular expertise.
JS: Is there a different kind of book you’d like to write somewhere down the line, a book where you finally get to say what you think?
SM: I don’t claim to be an expert on all these things—I’m not an economist, I’m certainly not a politician. But I do think—I’ll act a little bit like an older person here and say that often when I do look at political things in Texas, I’d like to see some of the things I first saw when I came to Texas. There were, for example, Republicans and Democrats working together for common goals. You look back at the Hobby era and about half of his chairs of Senate committees were Republicans; he worked as closely with Bill Ratliff as he did with his Democratic colleagues. I simply yearn for the days when the two parties worked more harmoniously together for the common good of Texas. And I think our partisanship is a problem in Texas, as it is in the country.
JS: Do you go about your work with good cheer, or are you depressed all the time?
SM: I guess I’m one of those people who truly enjoys what they do. I enjoy the data and working with the data, doing the projections, seeing what is happening. What gives me hope is the fact that whereas when I used to do a presentation twenty-five to thirty years ago and people would come up to me and tell me how wrong I was—and sometimes even worse!—now most people come up and say, “You’re right, let me tell you my story, let me tell you about my business, let me tell you about my school, let me tell you what we’re trying to do.”