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Economic recession slows trends impacting Austin

Wednesday, December 16, 2009 by Charles Boisseau

In mid-2007, City of Austin Demographer Ryan Robinson prepared a “Top 10 Big Demographic Trends in Austin” – a list of trends that he said were shaping Austin and would undoubtedly have a big impact on public policy for the foreseeable future.


Among other things, Robinson’s list highlighted Austin’s increasing immigrant population, which he said was creating a more diversified and diverse city as the population of Hispanics and Asians continued to grow at a faster pace than the Anglo and black populations. In fact, Robinson’s No. 1 trend was Austin becoming a “majority minority city,” meaning that the percentage of Anglos had dropped below 50 percent of the population. His list also highlighted the decrease in families with children in the urban core (trend No. 2), dispersion of African Americans from East Austin to other suburbs (No. 6), the movement of the center of wealth in Austin into the hills west of the city (No. 9), and the intensifying of urban sprawl (No. 10).


But that was then — 2007, when Austin was at its zenith in terms of population growth and job creation. Now, two years later — with 2009 coming to an end and with it the decade – the picture has changed. Or has it?


In Fact Daily thought it a good time to catch up with Robinson to see how he might update his list today – and ask him for some predictions for the upcoming U.S. Census.


Robinson said all the trends on the list – his first-ever such ranking – continue, but they are proceeding at a slower pace.


That’s because a slowing economy has greatly slowed the mobility of the U.S. population. The U.S. recession — which began in December 2007 — has wrecked the economy, as evidenced by the soaring unemployment rate and the devastated housing market. This was one of two major factors not accounted for in the earlier top 10 trends list, Robinson said. The other factor, which is related, is the slowing of the ethnic changes the city is experiencing.


“The thing that we are seeing now that is simply not reflected in that list is a pretty major recession that has finally come to town and, we think, though we are hard-pressed to prove it … the rate of how our ethnic shares have been changing has really stalled,” Robinson said.


“From 2000 to 2007 it was changing very, very rapidly. That change has come to really a screeching halt, we think,” Robinson said.


He stressed, however, that his statements are based on preliminary data; not until the data from the upcoming 2010 Census is released in 2011 will we have a better handle on how the slowing economy has impacted the overall trends, he said.


Even so, Robinson said it’s clear that population growth in the Austin’s metropolitan area has greatly slowed, just as migration has slowed nationwide as jobs have become scarce. Austin economist Angelos Angelou recently estimated that the net in-migration to Austin has dropped to about 5,000 this year. That’s a dramatic change from the periods of 2006 to 2007, when Austin had a “net in-migration” of 40,561 people and 2007 to 2008 when in-migration was 35,041– years when Austin ranked No. 5 nationwide in terms of attracting migrants, according an analysis by William H. Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer who tracks U.S. migration patterns.


Frey, in a report released earlier this month entitled “The Great American Migration Slowdown,” wrote that “in 2007-2008, the overall U.S. migration rate reached its lowest point since World War II.” He said the migration slowdown was an “inevitable byproduct” of the run-up in housing values and housing-related debt. “The credit crisis and Great Recession that followed left Americans flat-footed, as would-be movers were unable to find financing to buy a new home, buyers for their existing homes, or a new job in more desirable areas.”


State Demographer Karl Eschbach agreed that migration has slowed nationwide as fewer people have the wherewithal to relocate. Even so, he said Texas — and the Austin metro area — are bucking many of the trends.


“My sense is there is no other place for migrants to go,” Eschbach said. “Texas continued to get migrants from other states for simple reasons: One, the low cost of living and, two, even though we don’t have jobs to offer they’re likely to come here first” – because Texas is not as bad off as many other places where the unemployment level is higher. Citing anecdotal evidence, he said recently spoke with Texas Workforce Commission employees who report they are fielding increasing calls from migrants who just packed up for Texas despite not having a job.


But Robinson said, “the labor market is in this big giant freeze,” which limits the ability of people to pick up and move to where the jobs are. “Of course now it’s not just [people] having trouble selling their homes. There simply are no jobs anywhere. And that’s one of the earmarks of this recession.”


“Overall migration has certainly been reduced because our job creation has gone to just negative,” he said.


This has resulted in a slowing of the big trends in Austin – for example, the rise in ethnic immigrants.


However, Robinson noted that Austin was faring better than other U.S. cities, with its population continuing to show some growth, for example, despite the local economy having fewer jobs than a year ago. Indeed, Robinson said if there was a bright spot from Austin’s tech bust in 2001 and 2002 it was that Austin didn’t have the housing “bubble” that some of those other areas experienced.


“Because of our tech recession we never had a housing bubble. Even though our residential real estate prices did increase they weren’t bubbling like Riverside, Calif., or parts of Ohio or Florida,” he said. “The second thing is: our rate of diversification has stabilized, maybe just temporarily.”


Austin has not been unscathed by the recession, though the area has not suffered as much as many other places. The Austin metro area has lost 0.4 percent of its jobs in the past year.


Robinson provided a link to an animated graphic that shows the nation’s worsening jobless rates by county since 2007. (See link: )


“When you play the series of maps, it’s like a tide coming in rushing towards Texas from either side,” he said.


Robinson is one of 30 volunteers on an Austin/Travis County Complete Count Committee, which met for the first time Dec. 7. The committee, which next meets Jan. 11, is in the process of setting up subcommittees to help get the word out about the importance of people being counted. Among the subcommittees are ones devoted to Spanish-speaking households, Asian households and college students – populations that historically have been undercounted, he said. The count is crucial since the amount of federal financial assistance and political representation rides on the amount of population.


Asked for some predictions of how the 2010 population count will impact Austin and Travis County, Robinson offered these:


  1. Travis County will pass 1 million in population for the first time. “We’ll only know that when we get the census [results] back in 2011,” he said.
  2. Austin’s population may hit 800,000, up from 757,000 in 2000. This is a result not only of increasing population but also annexations. “The city would come in right at 800,000 and I wouldn’t be surprised if we were the 14th city in the United States,” Robinson predicted. In 2000, Austin ranked No. 15, behind No. 14 Indianapolis.
  3. In terms of the ethnic make up, Robinson predicted the percentage of the Latinos in Austin’s overall population will rise to 36 to 37 percent, up from 30.6 percent in 2000.
  4. Austin’s Asian population will increase to as high as 6.5 percent, up from 3.5 percent, meaning the number of Asian Americans will have about doubled in 10 years.

Eschbach noted that the U.S. Census Bureau plans to release its latest population survey next week. This survey covers the year ending July 2009, and Eschbach expects it to confirm that Austin continues to receive migrants despite the slowed economy.

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