Texas Demography Holds Key to Our Future

This commentary appeared in the Austin American-Statesman.

Dr. Steve Murdock presenting during the 2014 Children's Policy Conference.
Dr. Steve Murdock presenting during the 2014 Children’s Policy Conference.

Steve Murdock has worn many hats over the years. Gov. Rick Perry appointed him as the first official state demographer of Texas. He ran the U.S. Census Bureau for President George W. Bush. He now teaches at Rice University.

But you might simply call him the fortune teller of Texas. Over the past three decades, he has predicted quite accurately the size and diversity of the state’s future population.

Instead of a crystal ball, Murdock uses spreadsheets to see the future.

For years, he’s been taking his spreadsheets on the road. He estimates he’s presented them 250 times throughout the state over the past decade.

Out of a dizzying display of data emerges the story of Texas. It’s a tale he tells with a broad smile on his face, but a sense of urgency in his voice.

Part of the story is inalterable. But part of it depends on the decisions our state leaders make.

By 2010, Anglos comprised a smaller proportion of the state’s population than in 2000, while the share of other racial and ethnic groups rose. In fact, from 2000 to 2010, non-white Texans accounted for 89 percent of the state’s growth. About a third of the children in the state are white, although in the state’s largest metro areas, it’s less than 20 percent.

With each year that goes by, the demographic changes accelerate. Forty-eight percent of Texans younger than 18 are Hispanic. The number is higher – 51 percent – younger than five.

You could build a 20-foot wall on the southern border or import every techie from California, but it wouldn’t make much of a dent in the demographic projections. It’s an undeniable fact, Murdock explains, that black and Hispanic children will largely determine the future of Texas.

The reason this matters, he says, is that a variety factors — historical and societal — have linked these demographic groups to certain socio-economic conditions. Household incomes, for example, tend to be much lower for these Texans.

Millions of Texans will write their own individual stories for years to come. But the story of our state as a whole will depend on breaking the link between income and demographics.

This is the part of the story that has not been written yet. We can change the path that Texas is on. If we expand opportunities and raise the income levels in these racial and ethnic groups, we can ensure the state has a strong economy and the revenue to maintain investments in cops, schools, roads and hospitals.

Murdock’s statistics show that the best way to predict someone’s income is to take a look at their education. In other words, if we want to grow our economy, we need to improve the education of our future workforce.

Clearly, we have work to do. In Texas, 12 percent of Hispanic adults older than 25 have a bachelor’s degree. Among white adults in our state, the rate is nearly three times higher.

Murdock says that college financial aid and early childhood education are key to changing our state’s trajectory. Improvements in early childhood policies could include shifting public school pre-k from half-day to full-day, boosting child care quality, and expanding home visiting programs that assist new parents and their young children.

Of course, no single strategy is going to be sufficient to break down the links between income and race in our state. If kids in low-wage families are doing homework on an empty stomach, for instance, or struggling to get a full night’s sleep in crowded, substandard housing, it undermines our education investments. As long as minority children continue to face tougher discipline in schools and the juvenile justice system as compared to other kids who make the same mistakes, those children are going to veer further off track. Improving opportunities for all Texas children and families will require efforts across multiple policy areas.

Over the years, Murdock has noticed a change in the response to his presentations. At first, Texans denied that the changes were happening as fast as he said. Now, the policymakers, business leaders and others are moving from denial to acceptance, focusing more on the question of what actions are needed to address the Texas Challenge, as Murdock calls it.

How Texas leaders answer that question, and how quickly they do, will determine the future of our state.

Peter Clark is Communications Director at Texans Care For Children.