American Theater in Guymon, Texas County, OK | Photo by Nathan Gunter | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The American Theater in Guymon, Texas County, OK | Photo by Nathan Gunter | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Chan Aaron is an OK Policy summer intern. He is pursuing an environmental policy degree at The University of Tulsa. He is also a graduate of Oklahoma State University with a degree in philosophy and a veteran of the United States Navy.

The average Oklahoman probably doesn’t know much about Texas County, OK (other than that it is next to Texas). Yet this small panhandle county could be a glimpse of the state’s future. A new OK Policy fact sheet lays out the rapid changes happening in Texas County in recent years, and in this post we discuss what they could mean for the state as a whole.

In the last decade, Texas County, OK has experienced a significant population surge. A large number of Hispanic families have moved into the area seeking opportunities from pork producer and primary Texas County employer, Seaboard Foods, which provides decent-paying jobs that don’t require a college education.  While the new residents have brought economic vitality and an in-demand workforce, the area also faces challenges to ensure adequate housing, education, health care and other services for the new population — challenges that are a growing concern for the whole state.

The U.S. Census American Community Survey estimates that Texas County had a total population of 21,157 in 2013. That’s a 28.9 percent increase since 1990, more than five percentage points higher than the growth rate for the state as a whole. Texas County’s population push is due to strong growth in the Hispanic population, which increased by over 1,400 people from 2010 to 2013. Over the same period, the county’s non-Hispanic population fell by 113 people.

A large majority of the county’s growth (about 80 percent) has come from new births, not migration from other countries or other parts of the U.S. These growing families are why Hispanics are especially predominant among the youngest county residents. While non-Hispanics still comprised a majority of the total population in 2013, Hispanics made up more than 50 percent of all age groups 44 and below and nearly two-thirds of residents younger than 5 years.

“While non-Hispanics are still the majority in Texas County, Hispanics make up more than 50 percent of all age groups 44 and below and nearly two-thirds of residents younger than 5 years.”

The population growth has been fueled by and also contributes to a steadily expanding economy in Texas County, even during the recent national recession. The Bureau of Labor Statistics measured Texas County’s unemployment rate at 4.9 percent in January 2010 while the state as a whole was at 7.1 percent. Texas County’s rate remained under 5 percent the next 4 years, reaching a low of 3.7 percent in January 2014. Texas County also maintained a lower poverty rate than both the state and nation from 2009 to 2013. Further, Texas County residents earned higher incomes on average than Oklahomans as a whole. The 2013 Texas County median household income was more than $4,500 above the state’s median household income.

Not only does Texas County’s Hispanic population impact the local economy as workers and consumers, but they have profoundly changed the economic landscape by owning a relatively large percentage of local businesses. The percentage of Texas County Hispanic-owned firms (7.5 percent) is more than three times the state average (2.3 percent).

The flood of people and money has caused new infrastructure deficiencies and exaggerated already existing ones. Housing supply may not be keeping up with rapid growth in the county, which could impede further economic development. Integra Realty Resource’s Citywide Housing Market Study estimates a need for 119 new housing units per year through 2018, mostly in the county seat of Guymon. Yet just 66 building permits for residential units have been issued in Guymon in the past decade.

Another sign of economic fragility in the county is a very high rate of uninsured residents. Nearly 26 percent of county residents under 65 were uninsured in 2013, the 10th highest rate among all counties in Oklahoma. The high percentage of uninsured matches what can be seen in the rising Hispanic population across Oklahoma.

Educational attainment is a significant area in which Texas County trails the state as a whole. Just 71 percent of Texas County citizens older than 25 have a high school diploma, significantly below the state’s 86.4 percent with a high school diploma (2013). Similarly, Texas County adults who have a college degree is about 5 percentage points lower than the rest of the state. The comparatively low educational attainment in Texas County is similar to what can be seen in Oklahoma’s Hispanic population as a whole. While a lack of academic achievement does not seem to be limiting the county’s current economic prosperity, it does create risks, mostly due to a lack of alternatives if current jobs in the meat-processing industry go away.

Between 2005 and 2013, Texas County school districts added 544 new students, a 14 percent increase. The increase can be attributed almost exclusively to the groundswell of Hispanics into the area. The US Census American Community Survey estimates 38.1 percent of Texas County students age 5+ speak a language other than English at home, about four times the state’s rate of 9.4 percent (2013). Some of these children may be learning English for the first time in school, and it will be important to follow the best practices for teaching English-language learners to ensure they get a strong education.

The economies of Texas County and the state as a whole have benefited from an infusion of hard-working immigrants and new families with Hispanic heritage. As these families become a larger part of our state, it will be important to invest in improving educational opportunities and health care programs to ensure high wages and a competitive workforce. Unfortunately, in the wake of a state budget that will lead to more cuts to schools and the state’s refusal of federal funds to expand health coverage, policymakers seem to be hurtling in the opposite direction. Oklahoma lawmakers and business owners would do well to keep an eye on this patch of land in the panhandle for a glimpse of both the challenges and opportunities we will face as a state.