All this week, NPR is taking a look at the demographic changes that could reshape the political landscape in Texas over the next decade — and what that could mean for the rest of the country.
Few know Texas’ population as well as its official demographer, Lloyd Potter, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He talked with NPR this week about his research:
Describe in broad terms what’s happening in Texas, in terms of growth and demographics.
We have these major urban areas that are growing — both in terms of numbers and in terms of speed — faster than anywhere else in the country. So that’s the Dallas-Fort Worth area and the Houston area. And if you look at the Austin metro area, it’s also growing rapidly.
People are moving to Texas because we have job opportunities while other places are losing opportunities. The cost of living is lower here. We’ve been fairly effective in recruiting industry and businesses to locate here and create jobs.
We also have a number of other things that are related to the fracking and oil and gas extraction. If you look at Midland and Odessa, those were the fastest-growing areas in the country last year…. All of the counties where there is drilling activity are seeing explosive growth.
The other interesting thing that gets a fair amount of attention is the shift the state has been experiencing in terms of its racial and ethnic composition. In the last decade, a significant proportion of our population growth can be attributed to the Hispanic population. It’s around 65 percent of the growth. We also have the Asian population in Texas. Even though it’s a relatively small group, it grew by over 50 percent in the last decade.
The African-American population is holding its own, growing at the pace of the state. And then the non-Hispanic white population isn’t growing as quickly as the other groups. We’re not seeing a decline in white population yet, but as the Baby Boom generation ages into mortality, they don’t have cohorts coming in to replace them. So we’ll start seeing in the next decade some decline in the non-Hispanic white population at the same time we’re seeing these other groups continue to grow dramatically.
On the question of the demographics, what is driving the growth, particularly in the Hispanic population?
Illegal immigration is a small percentage of it. It really is largely being driven by natural increase. That’s births minus deaths. From a population perspective, we would describe it as a young population. There are more people who are younger in that population.
That also is then enhanced by the fact that we have a significant amount of net in-migration into the state of people who are of Hispanic descent. Many of those persons of Hispanic descent are moving into Texas from other states because we have job opportunities. If you look at Arizona and other states that have enacted immigration laws that seem to be difficult for Hispanic people, or make them feel like they’re in a hostile environment, some of their residents are moving to Texas, again because we have opportunities.
You’ve studied the “youth” of the Hispanic population. As those Texans come into voting age, they could have a significant influence in the conversation in Texas, I presume.
Well, the young Hispanic population already is a significant influence on the conversation in Texas, and that’s become more so nationwide.
Obviously [youth] has some implications for the voting-age population. In each age group going younger, there are more and more kids. So as those kids age into the labor force and voting age … there’s potential for them to have a very significant influence on the outcomes of elections.
The way that they vote when they go to the polls will also have influence on that. That’s been a big part of the discussion in the press, about turning Texas blue [Democratic]. People are anticipating that, if they can mobilize the Hispanic population, which typically votes more for Democrats, then there’s potential for a shift.
When you’re at a cocktail party, what two or three facts about the state will capture someone’s attention?
The major things are that we’re growing faster than any other state [4.2 million new residents from 2000 to 2010]. Some people are generally aware of that, but they aren’t specifically aware that we added more people than California in the last decade, and even post Census we’re estimating that Texas continues to grow faster than other states.
And then there’s the significant growth in the Hispanic population as opposed to the non-Hispanic white population. That’s a very significant historic shift in a state that has traditionally been dominated by the non-Hispanic white population. That has implications across the country. As Texas goes, we’re likely to see the rest of the country going in the coming decades.
Can you imagine doing your work in a state where there isn’t major demographic changes or growth, like in New Hampshire* or somewhere?
It would probably be a little more boring. I frequently say … that Texas is the most interesting state to do demographic work out of all 50. The characteristics of our population are very dynamic, and there’s always something happening that’s of interest. I know some of the demographers in other states, and their jobs are interesting. But I have no doubt that mine is much more interesting.
How does one become the “state demographer” of Texas? What was your trajectory to that job?
Well, first you have to be a demographer. I trained at the University of Texas at Austin in sociology and demography, so I have a PhD in demography. I’ve worked in demography-related activities and fields for most of my career.
You need to be interviewed by the lieutenant governor’s office and the [Texas House of Representatives] speaker’s office, and then both the speaker and the lieutenant governor make nominations to the governor. The governor actually makes the appointment, so you have to go through the process of being vetted by the governor’s office as well.
* New Hampshire grew more slowly than the country as a whole from 2000-2010, though at a higher rate than a few other states. Forgive me, Granite State residents.
Matt Stiles is data editor on NPR’s news applications team. Follow him on Twitter at @stiles.