Austin @ Large: Sense of the Census

Travis grows normally, Williamson in danger ... no, wait, that wasn't the headline

Austin At Large
Not that I want to trample on the Statesman's turf or anything, but I'm looking at some statistics ... specifically, the most recent population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, reported last week in the daily and other local media with a certain breathlessness. The Statesman led the Metro section with "Census Shows Williamson Outgrowing Travis." This is news? Hasn't the census been showing for well over a decade that Williamson Co. – among the fastest growing in the nation – is outgrowing its neighbor to the south?

Well, the hook here is that the Williamson growth edge is in absolute, and not just percentage, terms; from April 1, 2000, the official "date" of the last real census, to July 1, 2003, the date of the bureau's last annual county population estimate, Williamson Co. added 53,620 people, while Travis Co. added a mere 44,924. For their part, the three smaller counties in the Austin metro area – Hays, Bastrop, and Caldwell – added 29,326 between them. Bully for the suburbs!

These trends, by the way, are perfectly consistent with those elsewhere in the state. Throughout Texas, the major urban counties grew at a rate comparable to the state's overall 6.1% – Travis at 5.5%, Harris and Bexar at 5.7%, Tarrant a little higher at 7.8%, Dallas lower at 2.9%. It's their suburban counties that far outpaced the rest of the state: 21.5% in Williamson, 21.4% in Collin, 18.4% in Fort Bend, 17.8% in Montgomery, 12.5% in Comal, etc. Taking it in the shorts have been the rural areas; more than 100 of Texas' 254 counties have lost population since the beginning of the decade, though most of them had few people to begin with. Jefferson Co., home of Beaumont, is the only sizeable urban county to have experienced negative growth since the 2000 census.

Choose Your Growth

Fun facts, all, but crying out to be interpreted rather than spun, which is usually what happens in the mainstream media. To its credit, the Statesman kept the overt suburban triumphalism to a minimum, with only one passing quote (from state demographer Steve Murdock) about Travis Co. "struggling." (The city of Austin's own demographer, Ryan Robinson, noted for his part that the Census Bureau consistently understimated Austin and Travis Co. population in the 1990s.) Now, considering the pessimistic tenor of the local booster community during the bust years, I'd say these figures support the notion that life in Austin and Travis Co. must not be so bad, but to each his own spin – although it's true that the cities saw a larger share of growth coming from new births and not from migration of grownups who actually make and spend money and help local economies.

But one could not find in the Statesman, nor in any other mainstream Texas outlet I saw, any hint or whisper that it is possible for a county to grow too fast, that the steroidal population increases in the state's suburbs are unsustainable and are already creating headaches by the score. If I were a Williamson Co. official, I'd be terrified by the latest data, and perhaps they are. There's a reason why Gov. Rick Perry's son-of-Proposition 13 appraisal cap is getting just as negative a reception from the suburban counties as the urban ones; the former need an increasing tax base for their growth to come anywhere near paying for itself, and residential property wealth is the only kind they have.

So a headline that ran, "Census Shows Travis Growing Normally, Williamson in Danger" might have been more apt. That's a point I was trying to make in last week's surprisingly (even to me) unhostile assessment of the GOP's local transportation regime: The suburbanites are, slowly to be sure, starting to see that they need responsible land-use and infrastructure planning if they are to have any hope of absorbing the growth of which they had been so proud. And this was the ultimate message of Envision Central Texas: that the status quo, where all the housing goes into the suburbs and most of the jobs and services and institutions remain in the city, is bad news for both sides.

Here Is Everywhere

The ECT example shows how some of this annual data-talk is inevitably specious – it's a side effect of the Census Bureau's unavoidable use of "counties" as its data framework, as if counties really were self-contained entities. For most practical purposes, much of Travis and much of Williamson are the same place, which is why we needed to create a Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority to build a road across the largely theoretical county line. (Remember that many of those new Williamson residents are also citizens of Austin, which is now that county's third-largest city.) The figures reflect that Austin and San Antonio and Houston and the Metroplex are all urban economic regions, not just cities with their dependent suburbs, that are ever more ill-served by arcane Texas notions of how political power and responsibility should be shared, or not, across jurisdictions.

More locally, the census stats underscore a fact that a lot of Austin and Travis citizens and leaders, on both sides of the street, have been slow to appreciate: We not only are a bona fide big urban area, we act like one. One interesting tidbit of data, at least to me, is the degree to which Travis Co. has become an actual port of entry; of that proportion of our growth that came from migration (as opposed to births), all of it came from outside the U.S., at rates matching those of Harris Co. The Travis internal migration rate was actually negative, meaning more people left here for elsewhere in the U.S. than the other way around. Of course, many of those departees were likely headed for Williamson Co. and the other 'burbs within this metro area, a trend that, unfortunately, the Census Bureau does little to track.

This makes us more like Houston and Dallas than we often care to admit, and less like some of the whiter and wealthier "peer cities" we like to emulate. Absent that realization – and the resulting conclusion that regionalism and planning really must address class, color, and equity and not just the competing lifestyle concerns of the urban and suburban elite – the surface spin of the census stats, that the cities and their suburbs are competing with each other, will continue to come true, to everyone's detriment. end story

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Central Texas demographics, Census Bureau, population estimates, Travis, Williamson, Envision Central Texas, ECT, population growth, urban-suburban, regionalism

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