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10/12/2006 U-REPORT >> Populations of Midland-Odessa continue to grow while surrounding rural areas shrink By: Mike Makowaky Editor's Note: Mike Makowsky is Coordinator of International Studies at Midland College).By Mike Makowsky According to the US Census Bureau the number of Americans will surpass the 300 million mark sometime this month. Many parts of the United States, particularly in the South and West are growing significantly. However, despite this growth, our country is also in the midst of another major demographic event: the depopulation of a significant portion of its rural counties. Throughout the Great Plains, Corn Belt, Delta-South, and Appalachia-East regions of the US, many rural areas have been, for decades, consistently losing population.Rural West Texas, unfortunately, has not been exempt from this trend. Recently published US Census estimates reveal that out of 23 West Texas counties,* only five (Brewster, Ector, Gaines, Midland, & Presidio) have experienced population gains between 2000-2005. In fact, Brewster, Ector, Gaines, and Midland counties are today, home to more persons than at any time in their histories. This may not come as a surprise, considering the rapid population growth the state of Texas as a whole is experiencing, but for the rest of West Texas, the outlook for growth has been bleak.In 1900, shortly after the area was permanently settled and organized, the Census Bureau began enumerating the region's residents. In that year, according to the census, there were 20,843 residents in the 23 county area. Virtually all of these people resided in rural areas, since there were no cities of appreciable size, yet. However, during the next several decades, cities such as Midland, Odessa, and Big Spring began to develop as true urban centers for the region. As these cities grew, so did the percentage of residents living in urban, rather than rural settings.Still, despite increased levels of urbanization, rural West Texas continued to grow until the 1960s when the rural-depopulation of West Texas began to manifest itself. In rural areas, where livelihoods depended so much on the family farm or ranch, and, in the case of West Texas, on the oil industry, sharp drops in oil prices and changes in the way agriculture and ranching are conducted, where fewer workers are required to maintain productivity have had a significant impact on rural economies. Residents have been forced to relocate to seek better opportunities for work. While some have chosen to move to other parts of the state and country, many others have elected to stay in the region and relocate to the larger urban areas. This is evident in the rise in prominence of the cities of Midland and Odessa. Consider this: In 1920, the combined populations of Midland and Ector counties represented a mere 6% of the total population of West Texas. By 1960, this number had risen to over 45%. Today, of the some 410,000 West Texas residents, over 60% live in Midland and Ector counties.Indeed, over the past half-century, Midland-Odessa has become the undisputed core of the region. And while their populations continue to steadily grow, the combined populations of all the other West Texas counties has decreased nearly 15% from a high of 188,498 in 1960 to 161,642 in 2005. During the same period, the combined population of Midland and Ector counties has increased 55% from 158,712 to 246,710.For demographers, rural-depopulation can be explained in terms of push and pull factors. To put it simply, push factors are those that drive people away from an area and pull factors are those that attract people to an area. In addition to the aforementioned economic factors, many rural areas must contend with push factors that stem from their relative isolation from metropolitan areas, where goods and services not typically found in rural areas are abundant. Rural residents, for example, may have to commute many miles to see a specialist, purchase a car, or catch an airline flight. Furthermore, in some rural areas, the low level of natural amenities (as measured by climate, topography, and presence of lakes and ponds) makes them less-desirable to many residents.Whatever the causes, severe depopulation poses a major threat to a local community's economic viability. Fewer residents translates into a diminishing tax base, a reduction in community services, declining school enrollments (and closings), and eroding infrastructure. In combination, these problems exacerbate the situation, as affected communities increasingly become less attractive to residents.That Midland and Odessa have weathered this trend and still attract new residents is in some ways remarkable, considering that they too are subject to the same push factors as rural areas. Both cities have lost residents to larger cities, such as Houston and Dallas, for the same reasons a family might move from Pecos to Odessa. But Midland - Odessa also benefit from some of the same pull factors larger Texas cities enjoy. There are jobs, services, and amenities not found in smaller communities. Enough people are presently relocating from surrounding areas to more than offset these losses.Having lived in West Texas for virtually all of my life, I have witnessed the economic swings, have heard the dire predictions of the region's demise, have heard how little there is to do in the form of entertainment, and how it would be nice to have a few more lakes and a mountain or two to enjoy. I will not argue it sometimes requires a trip of a few hundred miles to see a concert, go fishing, or hiking, but it would seem for now that the anchors of West Texas, Midland and Odessa, are not going to wither away any time soon. The same may not be said for other West Texas communities, however, as their populations continue to dwindle. Hopefully, the current oil industry "boom," projects like Future Gen, the West Texas Space Port, and the increasing popularity of he "Triangle" area of Alpine, Fort Davis, and Marfa, will help revitalize some portions of rural West Texas.(* Andrews, Borden, Brewster, Crane, Crockett, Culberson, Dawson, Ector, Gaines, Glasscock, Howard, Jeff Davis, Loving, Martin, Midland, Pecos, Presidio, Reagan, Reeves, Terrell, Upton, Ward, Winkler.)©MyWestTexas.com 2006
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