The American economy has had little to cheer about since the 2008 financial meltdown and the resulting recession. Recovery has been feeble, and many states continue to struggle. One bright spot in the general gloom, however, is Texas, which began shining long before 2008. Not only has Texas created jobs at a stunning rate; it has also—pace critics like the New York Times’s Paul Krugman—created lots of good jobs. Indeed, the rest of the nation could turn to the Lone Star State as a model for dynamic growth, as a close look at employment data shows.

The first thing to point out is that Texan job creation has far outpaced the national average. The number of jobs in Texas has grown by a truly impressive 31.5 percent since 1995, compared with just 12 percent nationwide, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data (see Figure One). Texas has also lapped California, an important economic rival and the only state with a larger population. The Texas employment situation after the financial crisis was far less spectacular, of course, with the number of jobs growing just 2.4 percent from 2009 through 2011. But that was still six times the anemic 0.4 percent growth rate of the overall American economy.

Illustration by Alberto Mena
Illustrations by Alberto Mena

The National Establishment Time-Series (NETS) Database, which provides detailed information on job creation and loss for firms headquartered in each state, can tell us more about Texas’s employment growth. NETS data are divided into two periods—the first from 1995 to 2002, the second from 2002 to 2009. During the 2002–09 period, small businesses of fewer than ten employees were the Texas employment engine, adding nearly 800,000 new jobs; of those, about three-quarters were in firms with two to nine employees, as Figure Two indicates. Larger Texas companies—those with 500 or more employees—lost a significant number of jobs over this span, and medium-size firms likewise shrank, trends that also showed up on the national level.

Illustration by Alberto Mena

Figure Three, shifting back to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, shows that many of the new Texas jobs paid well. Indeed, Texas did comparatively better than the rest of the United States from 2002 through 2011. For industries paying over 150 percent of the average American wage, Texas could claim 216,000 extra jobs; the rest of the country added 495,000. In other words, the Lone Star State, with 8 percent of the U.S. population, created nearly a third of the country’s highest-paying positions. Texas also added 49,000 positions paying 125 percent to 150 percent of the U.S. average; the rest of the country lost 174,000 jobs in that category. As Figure Four shows, two sectors in which Texas employment did particularly well during the same period were natural-resource extraction (in fact, the state gained 80 percent of all new jobs in the country in that field) and professional, scientific, and technical positions. Both job categories boast average wages far higher than the national overall average. As happens whenever an economy grows, Texas also added hundreds of thousands of positions in food services, health care, and other lower-paid fields, in addition to the more lucrative jobs. Texas did lose 10,000 construction jobs, but that was a modest downturn, in light of the massive national slowdown in building caused by the crisis of 2008.

Illustration by Alberto Mena
Illustration by Alberto Mena

Vital to the economic health of Texas is that people are moving to its cities in droves. In 2011, Houston surpassed Philadelphia in population and became the country’s fifth-biggest metropolitan region, with 6.1 million people. Dallas–Fort Worth, with 6.5 million, was already the country’s fourth-biggest. The two cities trail only New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago, marking the first time that a single state has had two metros in the country’s top five since the Census Bureau began designating these areas a century ago. Meanwhile, of all metropolitan areas in the country with more than 1 million residents, the fastest-growing from 2010 to 2011 was Austin.

Though the national downturn has slowed job creation in Texas’s cities, they’re still adding jobs, sometimes briskly, unlike many other American metropolitan regions (see Figure Five). Austin’s strong information-technology sector and government-related work (the city is Texas’s state capital) helped propel 4.3 percent job growth from 2009 through 2011 (and 15.3 percent growth from 2002 through 2009). The number of jobs in McAllen, which benefits from increased trade with Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement, grew 3.7 percent. Job growth in economically diverse Houston has matched or exceeded the state rate since 1995.

Illustration by Alberto Mena

What accounts for the resilience of the Texas economy, which has outperformed the rest of the country not only over the long term but during the Great Recession as well? A pro-business climate has unquestionably been a substantial advantage. In its annual ranking of business environments, Chief Executive has named Texas the most growth-friendly state for eight years in a row. (California has been last for the same eight years.) The reasons included low taxes and sensible regulations; a high-quality workforce (Texas ranked second only to Utah in that category in 2012); and a pleasant living environment (an eighth-place finish, slightly below sixth-place Florida but, perhaps surprisingly, far better than 28th-place California).

Part of the explanation for the high living-environment score is doubtless Texas’s low cost of living. In 2011, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis put Texas’s “regional price parity,” a measurement of the price level of goods in an area, at 97.1, a bit lower than the national level of 100 and far lower than the California level of 114.8. Adjusted for cost of living, Texas’s per-capita income is higher than California’s and nearly as high as New York’s. Factor in state and local taxes, and Texas pulls ahead of New York.

More than three-quarters of the cost-of-living difference between Texas and California can be explained by housing costs. As Figure Six shows, Texas mostly dodged the real-estate bubble of the 2000s: the affordability of houses in large metro areas spiked in America as a whole but rose only modestly in Texas. A major reason that Texas real estate is so affordable is that the state lacks the draconian land-use restrictions that drive California housing prices into the stratosphere. The affordable housing attracts both people and businesses. Since 2000, 1 million more people have moved to Texas from other states than have left.

Illustration by Alberto Mena

All these considerations suggest that Texas is poised for further growth. And a final reason for Texans to be optimistic is that a major expansion of the Panama Canal will be completed in 2014. That could bolster the Lone Star State’s success by rerouting Asian commerce from West Coast ports to Texas alternatives, which are closer to the nation’s major markets.


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