Newly available census data confirms what most Texans already knew: the Lone Star State is becoming younger, more populous and more diverse than ever before.
Texas led the U.S. in raw population growth between 2010 and 2020 and also added more housing units than any other state, countering a national trend toward shrinking housing development. Much of that housing was built in the suburbs, reflecting explosive population growth in areas surrounding the major urban centers.
The data also showed that Texas’ population growth is being driven almost entirely by people of color. On a local level, that diversity is becoming evident in many of Texas’ suburban counties — and on a broader scale, has big implications for the political and economic future of the state.
According to the 2020 census, the population of Texas was 29,145,505 – a 15.9% increase over the past decade, or about 4 million people. Most of that growth occurred in the region containing the state’s five largest cities, also known as the Texas Triangle.
Reflecting the population growth, census data showed that since 2010, Texas added the largest number of new housing units, totaling 1,611,888. In counties with more than 500,000 housing units, Austin’s Travis County was the fastest-growing in the nation, increasing by 27.5% over the past decade. San Antonio’s Bexar County was next at 19.8%, while Houston’s Harris County grew by 15.3%.
Next highest was Denton County, north of the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where the number of housing units grew by 36%. In neighboring Collin County, housing units grew by 34.1%.
For counties with 100,000 or more housing units but fewer than 250,000, Williamson County led the country. Located north of the city of Austin, the city’s stock of housing units grew by 46%. In second place was Montgomery County, north of Houston, which grew by 34.2%.
City of Austin demographer Lila Valencia said that the data was confirmation of what demographers have already been tracking: that Texas’ growth is happening in the large metropolitan areas, particularly in the suburbs.
Notably, the growth in Texas has been almost entirely driven by people of color. Valencia said that about 50% of the population growth over the past decade has been driven by the Hispanic population, while nearly all of the state’s population growth has been driven by Texans of color, either through migration or natural increases.
“We knew that populations of color were going to be really important for how rapidly and how much growth the state was going to add or going to experience. But we saw that almost 95% of the growth was non-White growth in the state of Texas. So that's really significant,” Valencia said.
As of 2020, non-White Hispanic Texans accounted for 39.8% of the state’s population growth, census data showed. Hispanic Texans were almost on par with 39.3%, while Black Texans accounted for 11.8% and Asian Texans made up 5.4%.
Joshua Blank is the research director for the Texas Politics Project, a nonpartisan initiative at the University of Texas at Austin. He said Texas has seen similar growth each decade for the last 30 years as the population has become increasingly younger, more diverse and more urban.
“As much as the triangle of Dallas, Austin, Houston and San Antonio have grown in the last decade, this growth is pretty comparable with the growth that's [been] seen in the decade before that, and the decade before that. And that increase has been unabated,” Blank said.
In the past, moving to the suburbs implied that people wanted to escape the city. But with the rising cost of living, Blank said the explosive growth of the suburbs indicates people want access to opportunities; they just can’t afford to live closer.
“We have more and more Texans trying to get to the opportunities that the cities provide. And increasingly, that means living further and further from the urban core,” Blank said.
He pointed to Hays County, southwest of Austin, which saw the biggest change in population of any Texas county over the past decade. Hays County reported 241,067 people in 2020, an increase of 53.4% from 2010. The county includes the city of San Marcos and the Interstate 35 corridor. Once considered mostly rural, the area is now marked by subdivisions, commercial development and traffic jams.
Though most growth occurred within the Texas Triangle, Valencia said there has also been sustained growth in El Paso, the Rio Grande Valley and the Midland-Odessa area. Over time, it is possible that more growth will extend further to the west, but it will entirely depend on infrastructure, as well as the future expansion of remote work, Valencia said.
“That's going to be infrastructure both in terms of transportation — how easily they can get to amenities that they need — but also in terms of information infrastructure," she said. "They'll need to be able to have the broadband that they require to do a remote job, for instance."
The suburbs becoming more populated and diverse also has implications for political representation. Texas’ fast-growing population resulted in the state gaining two congressional seats, bringing the total to 38 for the next decade.
The Texas Legislature is required to redraw electoral district boundaries every 10 years based on the census data. Because of pandemic-related delays, that process is expected to require one or more special sessions that could push the redrawing of the maps into the fall months. In turn, that could delay the Texas primaries in 2022.
Republicans have total control over the redistricting process, owing to their majority in the Texas House of Representatives and the Texas Senate. With the new census data highlighting the changing demographics of the suburbs, the political fight over redrawing electoral districts is expected to be fierce in the coming months.
University of Texas at San Antonio professor of demography Rogelio Sáenz said that he expects gerrymandering — the manipulation of electoral districts for unfair political advantage — to take place. However, because people of color accounted for nearly all the growth in Texas, it will be easier for advocates to push back with lawsuits.
"I expect that Republicans will not suddenly see the light and redistrict along just lines with respect to race and ethnicity," Sáenz said, adding he expects it will be courts ultimately drawing the lines in lawsuits leveled against Republican-drawn maps. "The advocate groups for persons of color will present evidence showing that the maps diminish the political representation and ability of persons of color to elect persons from their own racial/ethnic group."
Though the 2020 census provides a helpful picture of the changing demographics in Texas, there are lingering concerns around the collection and processing of that data. Multiple states, including Texas, showed lower-than-expected population counts.
The results have been affected by several issues, including disruptions to field operations and an early end to the census count, the Trump administration’s failed efforts to insert a citizenship question, an uptick in the number of unanswered questions in the census and changes to data to protect privacy.
Valencia said that when she looked at Austin’s population count from the 2020 census, she was surprised by the final tally. She had expected to see the city reach 1 million people, in line with U.S. Census Bureau projections, but instead, the official count was 961,855, about 30,000 lower than expected.
“We don't know exactly if it was an undercount. But it's something that we're going to continue to explore, to try to understand why we're seeing … a lower number in Austin than we were anticipating,” Valencia said.
Blank said that in his opinion, every census is destined to be an undercount because it is impossible to get every person to participate. However, at best, the census is always an estimate and despite the various issues, the figures still have value.
Sáenz and Blank also pointed to a lack of public outreach by the state around the census, which also likely affected the numbers.
“They left it to localities in one of the biggest, most populous states in the country. So the effect of that is that we'll have less federal dollars and we'll have to rely on the Texas budget more significantly to fund the needs of Texans,” Blank said.
“If the citizens of Texas have an issue with that, they can vote for leadership that takes the census more seriously the next time around.”