HARLINGEN — The robust population growth of the Rio Grande Valley dating back four decades is slowly rolling to a stop.
Since 1980, the Valley’s population has more than doubled, from just under 600,000 people to nearly 1.4 million.
Although still increasing, the rate at which the region is adding people through both births and in-migration has reached a plateau. In Hidalgo, Cameron and Starr counties, the percentage increase in 2017-18 dropped to under 1 percent. In Willacy County, the population declined.
These Census Bureau estimates are expected to be confirmed following the completion of Census 2020 next year, when a more thorough collection of data will commence.
If the new numbers match the Census Bureau estimates, it could have an impact on how many federal dollars reach the region, on the number of state and federal legislators representing the Valley, and may well become a crucial factor in the decision-making by companies weighing whether to relocate here.
Arnoldo Mata is owner of Leadership Resource Group, a company which provides research and strategic planning, among other services. He compiled the latest population data on the region for one of his clients and is now sharing it.
“ The overall region is still growing, and it is growing at a pretty good pace, even year to year, when you take the entire region as a whole — South Texas,” Mata said. “It’s not growing as fast as it used to. When you think about the period, say, from 1990 to 2010, it grew at more than 30 percent over that 10-year period. If you look at the 10-year period between 2010 and 2018, it’s still very healthy.
“ But when you look at the year-to-year period, that’s where you see the trend where it’s actually starting to slow down,” he added.
Mata is looking at the Census Bureau estimates the agency makes in the time between its annual nationwide counts performed every decade.
In Hidalgo County, the growth was 2.71 percent in 2010-11, and then the rate began to fall. In a year, the growth rate dropped more than half, hitting 1.30 percent. By 2017-18, it was at 0.89 percent.
Cameron County, too, showed a declining growth rate, going from 1.74 percent in 2010-11 to 0.68 percent the next year. In 2017-18, the county’s growth rate had declined to just 0.17 percent.
Birth rate down
Part of the decline in population growth, Mata says, is due to women having proportionately fewer babies. While total births may not have declined much, the number of births per female ages 15 to 44 has dropped significantly.
In Hidalgo County, the birth rate for women ages 15 to 44 in 2006 was 110.6 births per 1,000 women. Just 10 years later, it had dropped to 82.4, a decline of 25.97 percent.
The drop was paralleled in Cameron County, where the 2006 rate was 103.6 births per 1,000 women and in 2016 it was 80.3 percent, a decline of 22.49 percent.
By comparison the Texas birth rate in 2006 was 78.8 and in 2016 had dropped to 68.6, a decline of 14.36 percent.
In the entire United States, the birth rate of 2006 was 68.5, and a decade later, it was 62, a drop of 10.79 percent.
“ So it doesn’t mean that we’re actually having fewer kids (in the Valley), we’re having more kids, But because we have a larger population of women in that age range, the percentage of live births is going down, and that’s going at some point to make a difference,” Mata said.
The Valley’s declining birth rate does fall in line with state and national numbers.
“ All of these things tend to add up,” he said. “If we had stayed at 110 per thousand, our population would be at this point growing a lot more.”
Mata says immigration into the Rio Grande Valley is helping to offset some of the population growth decline.
“ I haven’t gotten to looking at all those details yet but we do have a flow of people coming into the area from outside the country, and not just in terms of immigration from south of here, from Mexico and Central America,” he said. “We do have a number of people coming in from Southeast Asia.”
Others in this in-migration pattern include Americans from other parts of the country who are moving to the Valley for its kinder weather and lower cost of living. Many are Winter Texans who have made the decision to become full-time Texans.
But some demographic trends in this dynamic population shift are, he says, a cause for concern. Particularly, what he sees as ballooning segments at the younger end and the older end of the population scale.
“ One of the things that is happening is we’re kind of growing at both ends of the spectrum,” Mata said. “We’re getting a lot of young kids, that segment of children below 18, as a segment of the population that is growing a little bit over the years.
“ And the segment of people 65 and over is also growing, so those two sectors, which are not your prime working age, are growing and the segment in between is not as big relatively to the overall population, as it should be,” he added. “So companies may come in and say, ‘Yeah, the population is growing, but it may not be growing in the right places,’ and that makes a big difference.”
For years, economic analysts have predicted continued boom times when it comes to the Valley’s population growth.
TxDOT officials, for example, are forecasting the Valley’s population will double by 2040. With highways planners setting the stage for road construction up to 20 and 30 years into the future, any change in demographic trends could have a profound impact on correct planning and expenditures.
If a downward population trend is confirmed by Census 2020, cities and counties may be dealing with headwinds when it comes to things like federal and state funding levels, or the number of representatives the Valley has in Congress and the Texas Legislature.
“ For example, Community Development Block Grants are based on population,” Mata said. “If your area is not growing, if it’s stagnant, then you’re not going to get the same amount of money, or actually it could be reduced, because other areas of the country will be experiencing growth.
“ For example, growth in Austin and San Antonio is just phenomenal, so they will be the ones that, if there’s a set amount of money and it has to be divided by population, whichever is growing the most is the one that’s going to get more in the next budget cycle,” he added. “That makes a big difference.”
Following each census, state legislatures are required by federal law to reapportion legislative areas to better match population shifts within the past decade. If other sections of Texas are growing at a faster rate, it could impact the Valley’s influence in both Austin and Washington, D.C., if the Valley loses representatives.
Counties, cities and school districts all have long-range spending plans formed years in advance, and significant portions of their calculations are based on revenue expectations tied to population.
But Mata says it is the business world where a slow-growing Rio Grande Valley could be hit hardest.
“ Companies trying to relocate, especially in the service or retail sector, decide to locate based on where your population is growing,” he said. “Every company that wants to come into South Texas does so because they see the numbers growing, increasing.
“ But if they start to see it’s either going to level off, or in some cases falling backward, they’re going to think twice, or they may just say, ‘This is not a growing market.’ That means jobs are going somewhere else.”
The Census Bureau admits the Rio Grande Valley has been an area historically undercounted in the census conducted every 10 years. If the Valley’s slow-growth population trend continues on its current trajectory, an accurate and thorough count this time around may be even more important for the Valley’s counties, cities and schools.
Population growth since 2010
Hidalgo County 774,769 856,939 Up 11.77 percent
Cameron County 406,220 423,908 Up 4.35 percent
Starr County 60,969 64,525 Up 5.83 percent
Willacy County 22,134 21,515 Down 2.80 percent
Rio Grande Valley 1,264,091 1,375,887 Up 7.56 percent
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
Population growth by year (percent)
County 2010-11 2013-14 2017-18
Hidalgo 2.71 1.40 0.89
Cameron 1.74 0.42 0.17
Starr 1.15 0.96 0.40
Willacy 0.17 -0.35 -0.27
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
Valley birth rates
County 2006 2016 Percent change
Hidalgo 110.6 82.4 Down 26
Cameron 103.6 80.3 Down 22.49
Texas 78.8 68.6 Down 14.36
U.S. 68.5 62 Down 10.79
Source: National Center for Health Statistics, based on number of live births per 1,000 women ages 15-44