Texas’ future is in its people

It’s Texas’ people who will lead the state out of this pandemic and economic crisis. And it’s people who must perpetuate the economic prosperity that has fueled Texas’ quality of life for generations.

On March 2, 2036, Texas will turn 200. The good news is that people shouldn’t be a problem, at least in terms of numbers: it’s projected that there will be 10 million more Texans in 16 years than there are now.

By comparison, about 7.5 million people live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area today. So Texas has about a decade and a half to fold another North Texas — and then some —into the state’s economy.

That raises the question that will define Texas a generation from now: Will 40 million Texans be ready to contribute to the state’s prosperity and quality of life?

Unfortunately, such long-term questions often fail to get the attention of policy makers, whose focus tends to gravitate toward short-term needs and issues. Call it the tyranny of the urgent.

Over the next year, elected officials will be even more focused on immediate concerns, especially during 2021 legislative session — and rightly so, as they grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, a historic energy bust, and issues of policing, systemic racism and social justice.

But Texas’ long-term needs and challenges aren’t going away. Time is running out to make sure Texas is prepared for what Texans know is coming.

That’s where Texas 2036 comes in.

We created Texas 2036 to help put a spotlight on issues that will shape the state’s future and to build constituencies that see the need to address them. This month, Texas 2036 released a strategic framework that takes a comprehensive look at forces shaping Texas’ future.

The framework sets out 36 strategic goals in seven policy areas, ranging from prosperity and quality of life, to education and health, to infrastructure and government performance. The report offers about 160 indicators from a huge number of data sets to gauge Texas’ progress.

A thread running through all of these issues is human capital, both developing Texas’ future workforce and closing gaps that impede people’s ability to succeed in the 21st century economy.

Some of the challenges that Texas faces in this area were clear even before the pandemic:

Historically, Texas has overcome these shortfalls through migration, with well-educated people moving to Texas, often from other states, in pursuit of jobs and a better life. But Texas can’t rely on migration forever, and native Texans should have an equal chance to achieve success.

Texas’ ability to educate its people will determine whether the state achieves its potential in its third century. Educated people are healthier and more civically engaged than uneducated people. Their jobs are more resilient to disruption, whether from pandemics or automation.

The coronavirus has put a cruel spotlight on the differences and difficulties Texans face in accessing the skills and education they will need to prosper in the years ahead.

Take broadband internet connections, which are increasingly necessary for children to learn, adults to work, and families to access services like doctors’ appointments. Right now, only 66% of Texas households subscribe to fixed broadband service, which puts us last among our peer states. That rate plummets in rural areas and low-income communities.

Further, since the pandemic began, 1.25 million Texans have lost their jobs. Many of those jobs may never return, so Texas should consider using state and federal resources to teach and retrain workers so they can fill positions in higher-wage, in-demand fields.

In addition, more than 5 million students have seen their educations interrupted. Such learning loss today can translate into diminished opportunity tomorrow, so local and state leaders must move aggressively to identify and remediate learning loss and prevent learning loss next school year.

The questions Texas faces extend beyond education. Will businesses have the infrastructure to enable an economic recovery? Will Texans feel safe and protected in their communities? Can government provide efficient services to taxpayers? Will our state have the energy, water and agricultural assets needed to ensure the economy prospers?

Such questions might seem unsettling. They shouldn’t.

We still have time to address all of these things, and we’re Texas. Our history is marked by ingenuity and drive — it reassures that if anyone is up for this challenge, it’s Texans.

By taking action now, we won’t just forestall problems. We’ll also create chances for future Texans to leave their own legacy of prosperity.

In this, the strategic framework illuminates potential as much as problems. If Texans and their leaders begin working to make a real difference on these vital issues — especially as we rebuild our economy and workforce — then the opportunities described in the framework are clear and exciting.

These things will only become problems if we ignore what the data shows us. So let’s take action. That’s how the story of Texas was written, and that’s how the next generation of Texans can add their own inspiring chapter to it.