The State Needs Rural Texas — and It Needs to Start Planning
By Trent McKnight and Abel Castro
Iconic ranches, farms and small towns sustain about 3 million Texans — a population larger than the City of Houston’s.
The sense of community, plentiful open space and great quality of life — all found in places like West Texas and the Panhandle — have sustained families for generations. We also power the state’s economy, supplying energy, food and fiber to the world.
Yet West Texas, and particularly rural West Texas, faces challenges that range from shuttering hospitals to inadequate infrastructure; these issues could spell trouble for all of Texas unless we come together as a state to address them head on.
Many of these issues have been illuminated by the coronavirus. Shaping Our Future, the seminal strategic framework just released by the non-profit group Texas 2036, makes such challenges facing Texas even clearer.
The two of us serve on the board of Texas 2036, which encourages long-term, data-driven planning at the state and local level to ensure Texas remains the best place to live and work a generation from now. The report, coupled with the pandemic, shows how badly West Texans need that kind of far-sighted planning and preparation.
The strategic framework notes that Texas is expected to add about 10 million people between now and 2036, the year of Texas’ bicentennial. But 90 percent of that population growth is expected to occur in urban areas. And while the number of jobs in Texas could grow by nearly 20 percent over the next decade, jobs in almost half of Texas’ counties — mostly rural counties — will actually shrink unless action is taken.
In the meantime, rural Texans struggle to access resources that their urban and suburban counterparts take for granted.
Preparing the next generation is key, yet many students in rural communities have less access to postsecondary education. Nearly 60 percent of rural school districts do not offer Advanced Placement courses, and the distance from a high school to a higher education institution can stretch well over 100 miles.
Rural Texans also lack access to health care and face worsening health outcomes. Texas ranks last among its peer states in rural access to care — 63 counties have no hospitals at all, and 35 have no primary care physicians. Obesity also is more common in rural regions, and rural Texans die of heart disease and stroke at rates far higher than Texans overall.
Then there’s broadband internet access — which in recent months has offered a lifeline to millions of Texans through home offices, virtual school classrooms and telemedicine appointments with physicians. In Texas’ urban areas, 97 percent of the population can at least access broadband, but nearly one-third of rural Texans cannot say the same.
Fortunately, we’re Texans — more than that, we’re small-town and small-city Texans — and we’ve never shied away from a challenge. The truth is that every one of these numbers stands as an opportunity to make West Texas even more of a powerhouse than it’s ever been. The state just needs the backing of its people.
Show your support by going to Texas 2036’s website — www.texas2036.org/Future-Of-Rural — and signing up to support rural Texas. The organization will keep you up-to-date on key issues facing rural areas and the rest of the state, and we’ll share opportunities to help Texas communities thrive.
It’s always been easy to see Texas’ past in its rolling plains, small towns, farms and ranches. Look a little closer and you’ll see the future there as well. We simply need to come together as a state and grasp it.