Years ago, Texas was a predominantly rural state. Populations of cities and counties in the late 1800s and early 1900s were much more evenly distributed back then. If we look back to the 1860s, we would note that nearly 60 percent of the U.S. workforce consisted of farmers. In 1900, it was still about 40 percent of all workers. Now, of course, only two percent of the U.S. workforce is employed in agriculture. As a result, fewer people live in rural areas, and the fastest growing geographies in Texas are now the larger cities. This shift in the distribution of the state’s population has implications important to the Eagle Ford Shale area (and West Texas as well) in terms of legislative representation.
Let’s take a specific example. In 1890, Gonzales County had around 18,000 people living there. San Antonio had a little over 37,000 and Bexar County had just under 50,000 people. By 2000, San Antonio had over one million residents and Bexar County boasted over 1.3 million — increases of 2,500 percent or more. Yet, in 2000, how many people lived in Gonzales County? About 18,000 — the same number as in 1890.
This is indicative of the growth occurring in the larger cities like San Antonio, Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin. And yet, what often goes unnoticed is that both Texas Senate and House seats are apportioned by population. Unlike the U.S. Senate, where every geography (state) has retained two votes since statehood, the Texas Senate is population proportional. So as communities in South and West Texas lose ground to the larger cities in terms of population growth, they lose not only House but also Senate seats as well.
In 1900, Bexar County, for example only contained 31 percent of the population, which meant that almost 70 percent of people lived in the other parts of the Eagle Ford area. By 2010, however, Bexar County’s share of the 20 county Eagle Ford Shale population had doubled to 61 percent. With that growth, comes a greater political voice in terms of more State Representatives and Senators for cities like San Antonio, and less for rural counties in the Eagle Ford.
Some of the most dramatic population shifts have occurred since the end of World War II, when agricultural mechanization began to systematically decrease the number of people employed on farms. From 1950 to 2010, DeWitt, Dimmit, Gonzales, Karnes, La Salle, and McMullen Counties all lost between 6-40 percent of their population. In that same period, San Antonio and Bexar County increased over 200 percent. Many counties in West Texas have seen similar population decreases since the 1950s.
The reality of Texas politics is that all parts of the state are in constant competition for the limited highway funding available. Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin and Houston, for example, have their own issues with regard to roads. While South and West Texas are seeing the impacts in the form of road deterioration from large numbers of 18-wheelers, the big cities struggle with increasing congestion because of rapidly growing populations. Both groups make a good case for increased highway funding, but the more populated cities and counties have a much greater political voice than in the past simply because they have more State Senators and Representatives. Given the shift in political clout to the larger cities in Texas, it will be important for the communities in South and West Texas to work together to make their case to the Texas Legislature.
Of course, beyond legislative remedies, rural communities across Texas must seize the opportunity to reinvent themselves. The predominant family farm system that was characteristic of rural Texas in the late 19th and early 20th century has changed because of technological progress that requires fewer people in traditional agriculture.
But the population of Texas is growing (nearly 47 million people estimated by 2060 — up from 28 million currently), and this trend presents opportunities for rural areas to grow also if they can establish an infrastructure that attracts new residents, visitors and businesses. So the question remains: How will rural Texas — with the help of the state legislature — transform and thrive in the coming decades?
About the author: Thomas Tunstall, Ph.D., is the Senior Research Director at the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Institute for Economic Development, and was a principal investigator for numerous economic and community development studies. He has published peer-reviewed articles on shale oil and gas, and has written op-ed articles on the topic for the Wall Street Journal. Dr. Tunstall holds a doctorate degree in political economy, a master’s in business administration from The University of Texas at Dallas, and a bachelor of business administration from The University of Texas at Austin.