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Before COVID, Texans Were Upbeat About the Future. Has That Changed?

It may be difficult to recall what life was like before the coronavirus pandemic struck around the globe and Americans took to the streets to protest injustice and racism. But as Texas continues marching toward a return to normal, it’s worth considering what, exactly, normal was.

In the early months of 2020, the Texas economy was soaring and the residents of our state were generally optimistic about the future. But there was a downside: Texans were not focused on the long-term challenges facing this rapidly growing state — the same challenges that Texas 2036 works to highlight with data, analysis and outside-the-box thinking.

More than half of Texans — 53%— said in the poll that Texas was going in the right direction, versus 39% saying the nation was on the right track. Respondents were more than twice as likely to say they were better off financially in 2020, as compared to 2019, than those saying they were doing worse.

But when asked an open-ended question about which one issue the state needed to address immediately, only 9% of Texas voters mentioned the economy or workforce readiness as a top concern; 9% listed education, and 8% said health care.

At the end of January, Texas 2036 engaged a polling firm to measure Texans’ views of the economy, the direction of our state, and some of our starkest long-term challenges. The polling found that a majority of Texans were as optimistic about the state and the economy as they’d ever been.

Voters expressed more concern about some of these issues after hearing more information about them. For example, told that health care costs are rising for families and individuals while Texas health outcomes are among the worst in the nation, 66 percent of Texans described themselves as very or extremely concerned.

Then the pandemic hit, spotlighting many of the inequities and weaknesses that already threatened to hamstring the state’s continued success. If Texas is going to build broad consensus around long-term solutions to generational challenges like a shortage of skilled workers or severe congestion on our highways, then more Texans need to be thinking about those challenges. More Texans must understand the substantial needs of a state that will add 10 million residents over the next 16 years.

That’s why Texas 2036 is here and why our work is important: we use data to highlight issues that may not be on the front pages today but will be critical to our future.

What remains to be seen is how the coronavirus pandemic changes Texans’ outlook. Certainly, the economic optimism and success from January have dissipated, at least for the moment. It’s possible, unfortunately, that the need for Texans to recover economically and reconnect with their communities, while still balancing concerns about the virus and social justice issues, will make it even more difficult to focus attention on the challenges looming over our future.

Or perhaps this pandemic has proven just how important long-term thinking is. Texas has been painfully reminded that world events can upend our economic success, and also that resources such as the health care system can be tested in unforeseen ways. We have seen the importance of planning for mass interruptions in learning and employment.

We all wish the coronavirus had never come to Texas. Its devastation will impact this state for years. But our state will recover from this pandemic, and one legacy of that recovery must be a greater understanding that today’s prosperity can quickly disappear.

It serves all of us to be well-prepared for the future, regardless of what that future may bring.

This is why Texas 2036 has been amassing and contextualizing hundreds of data sets that show where Texas is today and where we are heading on critical policy areas, such as education, justice and safety, health, infrastructure, natural resources, government performance.

On Thursday, June 18, we will be rolling out “Shaping Our Future,” a strategic framework that takes a comprehensive look at the forces and issues defining the future of Texas. It lays out aspirational goals that link directly to our state’s collective prosperity and provides the data that shows why these matter. We look forward to talking with Texans about the opportunities and challenges facing our great state and finding out what matters the most to them, their families and businesses now and in the future.

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