By Tim Brown, County Information Senior Analyst
We have all heard that Texas is becoming an urban state, which is not always easy to believe if you have ever driven through some parts of the state, particularly in West Texas. But, Texas has three of the top 10 most populous cities in the country (Houston, San Antonio and Dallas) and 69 of the top 780 cities. The U.S. Census Bureau produces a table ranking every incorporated place with more than 50,000 residents based on population estimates for 2018. In addition, the Census Bureau estimates that Texas has three of the ten fastest growing counties in the country (Hays, Comal and Kendall) and almost a quarter of the top 100 fastest growing counties (the 100 fastest growing counties from 2010 to 2018).
But the growth and population are not evenly distributed across the counties. Clearly some parts of the state remain rural and others are just as clearly urban, yet there are areas where the distinction is not so clear. Unfortunately, we do not have an authoritative definition of either rural or urban (for more on the definition quagmire, see the discussion at the end of this article).
As a result, this article will look at several proxies. First, since we have already mentioned the Census Bureau, let’s look at the changing population.
Which counties we classify as rural or urban can depend on many factors. But, generally, population plays a large part. Table 1 shows how the total population of the largest counties changed from 1990 to 2018. To calculate the percentages, the counties were ranked by 2018 population and the percentages were calculated for each year based on the 2018 ranking.
Interestingly, the greatest change in percentages occur in the bottom two rows. This results in part from the cumulative growth occurring in all of the larger counties (the top five plus the next five, etc.); however, it also indicates that much of the growth is occurring outside of our top five population counties (Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar and Travis). But, if a greater proportion of the state’s population is increasingly found in these larger counties, whether looking at the Top 5 or the Top 40, what is happening in the smaller counties?
Table 2 shows the change in the smaller counties. Note that the change from 1990 to 2018 increases with each step down from the first row. The last row, based on the populations of 200 counties, shows a significant decline relative to the larger counties even though many of these smaller counties had significant growth. For example, Wise County’s 1990 census population of 34,679 is estimated to have grown to 68,305 in 2018 — a 97.0% increase. But, 77 of the remaining 199 counties in that bracket actually lost population over that period — and another 28 grew by less than 10%.
Map 1 and Map 2 show respectively the population by county as of the 1990 census and the population for 2018, as estimated by the Census Bureau. The brackets are based on some of the different state agency definitions of rural counties. For example the Texas Workforce Commission categorizes any county with a population of 10,000 or less as “rural,” while one of the definitions of a rural county that the Texas Department of Agriculture uses is any county with a population of 150,000 or less. The agency uses multiple definitions for rural counties each of which is program specific.
Note that, in some circumstances, a county may not be considered rural even if it appears in the lightest colored bracket. For example, the Texas Medical Board accepts only counties with a population of 5,000 or less as rural based on the most recent decennial census. Even using 2010 population counts, that leaves out a lot of counties — using this criteria, only 51 counties qualify as rural.
Counties vary greatly, not just by population but also by geographical size. Perhaps population density would be a better gauge. For example, to be considered by the Texas Department of Agriculture for designation as a rural hospital, a hospital must be located in a county with a population density of less than 225 persons per square mile of land area and in a municipality of 15,000 persons or fewer. No other definition of rural counties using population density for a criteria appears in the state’s statutes or state agencies’ administrative rules (as of 2018). Map 3 shows the population density of counties based on the Census Bureau’s 2018 population estimates and the land area of each county (water area not included).
As seen in Map 3, using the 2018 data, 29 counties do not qualify as rural; an increase from the 1990 Census when only 17 counties would not have qualified as rural under this administrative rule.
Besides population-based statutes and rules, what other indicators might show how much the state has changed over the last few years?
The Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts collects local reports of property tax data every year and the Texas Association of Counties has been obtaining copies of that data for quite some time. Part of that data breaks down the different categories of taxable property.
Map 4 shows the change in the number of acres of farm and ranch land by county from 1995 to 2018. There are some caveats. Data from several counties is missing or obviously suspect for one of those two years; in most cases we simply substituted the data from either the prior or subsequent year. However, this was not possible for three counties since issues existed with their data from multiple years. Lastly, some counties actually showed an increase in acreage; in three cases, acreage increased by more than 1%. All counties showing an increase in acreage were lumped in with those that had a decrease from 0% to 5% in the “No Significant Change” category.
While the data is a bit suspect, the map does show significant declining acreage in the counties with the largest cities, as well in many nearby suburban counties. These are precisely those areas where, in a growing state, one would expect agricultural land to be converted into subdivisions and shopping malls. Obviously, the decline in acreage could and probably does have other explanations. Combined with the other data/maps, however, it points to the areas that are shifting from rural counties to urban counties.
Obviously, parts of Texas are becoming more urban as more and more counties grow beyond their rural roots; how many depends on what definition you want to use. Just as clearly, other parts may actually be becoming more rural as seen by the declining populations in 77 counties; again, the number depends on which definition of urban or rural you want to use. But, by any set of definitions, these processes are taking place. And this will be a challenge for policy makers both at the local and at the state level.
Defining “Rural” Counties
The Texas Legislative Council produces a document (https://tlc.texas.gov/docs/policy/Def_Rural_Statutes.pdf) that identifies 18 different state agencies with their own definitions of rural, each of which was created by statute or administrative rule. Some agencies base their definitions on the populations of municipalities, some on the populations of counties, some definitions even overlap. But, they do not all agree. The document includes 12 different maps using those definitions and highlighting rural areas, rural communities, rural counties and rural border counties.
That assortment comes from just the state agencies; federal agencies can have their own definitions. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service maintains a web page (www.ers.usda.gov/topics/rural-economy-population/rural-classifications/what-is-rural.aspx) discussing the definitions of “rural” used by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Office of Management and Budget.
Finally, most of the definitions listed in this article deal with how to define a rural county and the article implicitly assumes that any county that is not rural must be urban. While some organizations agree with that assumption, either explicitly or implicitly, not all do. For example, TAC once sent a survey to county judges that included a question asking if they considered their county to be rural, urban or suburban. And the USDA uses a set of Rural-Urban Continuum Codes with 9 different categories: six “non-metro” codes, including two for rural counties, plus three “metro” codes. *