What is Rural?
Characterizing Rural Texas
Wild Ride in Rural Texas
Gambling With Texas Agriculture
Oil and Gas: Slippery Slopes
New Paths in Rural Texas
Where To Now?
A visitor to Texas’ big cities can easily observe the signs of economic growth and change all around. Business expansions, corporate relocations and new residential developments and retail centers are the visible hallmarks of prosperity in the state’s metropolitan economies.
The same visitor, traveling in rural Texas, would have to look much harder for the outward signs of change. He would notice the town squares, oil wells, fields of crops and pastures filled with livestock that have long been icons of rural Texas. However, a closer look would reveal signs of the growth and turmoil that has visited rural Texas in recent years. Our visitor might notice that some small town main streets are noticeably void of shoppers, as competition from discount superstores continues to pull customers away. He might make note of thinning herds of cattle or parched fields in times of drought, or motionless pump jacks during a slump in the price of oil. Rural Texas is indeed undergoing a profound transition, and the effects are being felt by Texans who live in these communities.
Much of this shift has been caused by a changing economy. The two industries that have served as the linchpins of rural Texas—oil production and agriculture—have witnessed massive changes over the past twenty years and now require fewer workers. In some areas of the state, population decline has followed, as the volatility of these industries led many laid off rural workers to seek employment in metropolitan areas. More than a third of Texas’ rural counties lost population from 1990 to 1999, while every metro county grew.
To be sure, Texans in some rural areas have seen some hard economic times. But, the nature of this change has been like two sides of the same coin, economic dislocation and decline on one side, and growth and opportunity on the other. Whole new industries have sprung up, that rely on the natural amenities and resources in rural Texas, and many rural communities have responded with innovative approaches to economic development.
Texas remains a top producer among the 50 states in petroleum and agriculture. In these foundation industries, technology has significantly boosted productivity and producers can now avail themselves of new tools to manage the volatility inherent to commodity prices.
Most promising, the telecommunications revolution that has fueled explosive growth in electronic commerce holds the potential to bridge the geographic isolation of many rural communities, and bring jobs and commerce to rural Texas. At the same time, the troubling trend of past decades where talented young people moved away from rural areas appears to have reversed. A recent report indicates that more Americans are moving to rural areas than moving out, and college graduates between the ages of 26 and 30 represented the largest group of these new rural transplants.
In the end, there is no single story to tell about rural Texas. The vast landscape of the Texas countryside is dotted with success stories as well as failures, and rural fortunes are as varied as the state’s regions. Many small towns have survived and even prospered, some due to their proximity to urban centers, others through creative responses to the changing economy. It is evident that rural Texas is experiencing great transition and taking the good with the bad. In many rural towns, the pain and hardship of fundamental economic restructuring is giving way to new paths to prosperity.
Photos: Courtesy of the Texas Department of Transportation.