Despite feeding and clothing the rest of the state, the communities in rural Texas face deteriorating infrastructure — an issue that is easily lost amid louder news coming out of large population centers like Dallas.
In particular, many areas have struggled to keep pace with the broadband internet services people elsewhere take for granted.
Only one-third of northeast Texas rural households have high-speed broadband. Those that do have the connectivity pay substantially more than their city-dwelling peers. For example, on average, internet costs in Deep East Texas are four times higher than those in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area.
As reported by The Dallas Express, while the demand has slowed, people still desire remote properties, and prices remain high. The pandemic prompted an influx of interest in ranches across the state, inflating prices by 27% annually during the second quarter of 2022. Texans purchased these recreational properties to escape congested cities, restrictions, and masking mandates.
Of course, city slickers moving out to the country may not fulfill the same valuable role many rural inhabitants occupy. In 2019, rural Texas produced over $21.2 billion in economic activity.
Ranchers are raising the cattle that feed us, and farmers are growing the cotton that clothe us. For many, however, these critical activities are out of sight and out of mind.
Kara Mayfield, executive director of the Association of Rural Communities in Texas, put it bluntly: “The state of Texas needs rural… The whole state suffers if rural Texas disappears,” forcing us to rely “on other states or foreign entities to fill the void that used to be filed by our very own Texans.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects the demand for cotton and beef to continue to climb over the next decade. Unfortunately, Texas risks losing these valuable industries if the prospects for rural communities decline.
The pandemic helped raise the urgency for faster internet at the federal level, with people increasingly forced to work and learn from home. In 2021, Congress passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which included a $65 billion allocation to improve broadband infrastructure across the country. An additional $25 billion was also earmarked to spread high-speed internet via the American Rescue Plan.
People living in rural communities are not just interested in streaming their favorite TV shows. Rather, a strong connection is critical for many occupations these days.
“It’s really not about Netflix or streaming your favorite football game… The longer we’ve waited to address this issue, the more we’ve fallen behind urban areas from an economic development standpoint,” stressed the executive director of the East Texas Council of Governments, David Cleveland.
And it is not just the problem with internet speed that needs to be addressed, either. Teachers, for example, are hard to come by in many communities. Medical services are also lacking, with hospitals increasingly closing across rural areas nationwide over the past decade.
As a result, some towns are tackling the issue of worsening infrastructure by investing in retail spaces and improving downtowns. Revitalization efforts, it is hoped, will help attract tourists and new residents.
Perhaps Becca Chance, co-chair of an initiative attempting to obtain a cultural designation for the town of Lufkin, said it best, “This isn’t just to beautify our city, but it’s about spurring economic development.”