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Debunking Texas Exceptionalism

Winning the demographic lottery is nothing to crow about.
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Downtown Houston, Texas. (Photo: Sarath Kuchi/Flickr)

Downtown Houston, Texas. (Photo: Sarath Kuchi/Flickr)

"Clearly, population grows more quickly in places where work is rewarded and the price on that work is kept low." Clearly. "The extremely high cost of living has an obvious cause and an obvious conservative solution." Obviously. Texas is clearly exceptional. Texas is obviously the big demographic winner in the United States. Ergo, the clear and the obvious are linked in a causal fashion. Concerning that, a demographer comments:

"It isn't 'possible,' it's 'probable' that Houston will grow to be the country's third largest city," said Dowell Myers, a demographer at University of Southern California. ...

... There's nothing especially scientific about assuming both cities will continue growing at their current rate. Nonetheless, Myers said there's good reason to expect Houston to surpass Chicago sometime relatively soon.

"It has the employment trajectory, and it has the land area," Myers said. "The Sun Belt cities are attracting growth because they have the land area. And because of that, they're destined to surpass the landlocked, older cities like Chicago."

Chicago is dying. Houston is booming. Why? The Sun Belt hosts more greenfields than the Rust Belt. In general, the urban economies of the North are more developed and older than the urban economies of the South. Clearly, developing economies grow faster than developed economies. Obviously, greenfield opportunities give way to brownfield legacy costs. Texas cities, like all other cities in the U.S., worry about housing affordability.

The Texas migration miracle isn't as advertised. Fifty percent of the population growth comes from natural increase. Twenty-five percent of the population growth comes from immigration. At best, Texas exceptionalism can explain 25 percent of the state's population growth. According to demographer Dowell Myers, much of that 25 percent related to domestic migration falls into the category of land availability. The impact of Texan policy on the state's population growth amounts to residual error. Hooray Lone Star?

The bulk of economic activity occurs within the Texas Triangle. Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio (as well as points between) are the magnets. Within that national powerhouse:

Between 2013 and 2014, Harris County added more people than any other county in the country. Forty-nine percent of that growth was from natural increase and the balance (51 percent) was from migration. Almost 70 percent of Dallas County’s population change was from natural increase. Yet when we look at suburban ring counties, the bulk of population change that is occurring is from net migration. Hays County (just south of Austin) was the fifth fastest growing county in the country between 2013 and 2014. In that year, 84 percent of Hays County population change was from net migration. Comal County, just north of San Antonio, was the ninth fastest growing county and 90 percent of the population change was from net migration. Fort Bend County, southwest of Houston, was ranked 11th in the country for numeric growth and sixth for rate of increase with 81 percent of this growth being from net migration. Therefore, while the urban core counties are growing substantially, the type of growth is different from the growth occurring in suburban ring counties.

Dallas County houses Dallas, Texas, the city. Robust birth rates drive much of the population gains. The suburbs, the greenfields, attract the bulk of the migrants. Where domestic migration meets population growth in Texas is exactly where Dowell Myers would predict. There's nothing exceptional about it.

Jim Russell, a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development, writes regularly for Pacific Standard.