Because Texas is geographically large and diverse, it is made up of numerous distinct regions, each of which is characterized by distinct levels of wealth, types of economic activity, density of settlement, racial and ethnic mix, and political culture. East Texas and West Texas are both Texan, but have a different feel from each other. And both of these are different from South Texas. Urban Texas, which is where a majority of the state's population now lives, is remarkably different - richer and with greater economic and cultural diversity - from the rural areas of the state. For that matter, the cities are different from each other. Austin and Dallas are almost two different worlds, but even neighbors Fort Worth and Dallas are quite distinct. Meanwhile, the rural border area is certainly different from the agricultural rural areas of East Texas. And far west Texas, the area around El Paso, is in another time zone!
Regional variety in Texas is a commonly recognized source of difference in culture and society in the state. In the political system, these regional differences are expressed most directly in the legislature. The legislature is organized into geographically based districts of roughly equal population -- 31 in the state senate, 150 in the house of representatives. Thus, geographically distinct interests are the basis of representation. This has direct consequences for the legislators elected from those districts, as Senator Kip Averitt recounted in an appearance in the Texas Politics Speaker Series at UT - Austin in 2006. This in turn perpetuates the significance of these regional variations: the legislature will provide a guaranteed venue for the expression of these variations for as long as geography is the primary organizing principle.
Taken as a whole, all of these regions combine to form an economic powerhouse, albeit one with an emphatically unequal distribution of wealth and economic activity. Texas ranks third - behind California and New York in total gross state product (GSP). But in terms of GSP per capita (GSP divided by population), Texas is very close to the average for all fifty states.
Neither total GSP nor GSP per capita conveys much about how well different sectors of the population are doing because these measures provide only a top-level summary of state economic performance. It turns out that Texas has one of the worst income disparities in the nation. A 2006 study entitled Pulling Apart: A State-by-State Analysis of Income Trends, produced by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute (CBPP and EPI), shows that Texas ranked at or near the top among the fifty states in terms of income inequality in the early 2000s. The CBPP-EPI study concluded that in the early 2000s, the income gap between the richest 20 percent of families and the poorest 20 percent in Texas was the second largest in the nation. The income gap between the richest 20 percent of families and the middle 20 percent was the largest in the nation. Worsening income distribution has been a trend throughout the country for some time, but the trend is pronounced in Texas in part due to the historical resistance in the political culture to helping the poor and less fortunate by providing government support in the form of social services, and the pattern of business access to the legislative process.
The income disparity also reflects the strong economic regionalism in Texas, which in turn reflects both the racial/ethnic distribution across the state as well as the distinct geographic character of the state's regions. The Texas Politics feature Where Jobs Are - And Good Wages shows that the south Texas border and El Paso areas, which have the highest concentration of Latinos, also have the lowest per capita incomes in the state.
The highest per capita incomes are found in the state's largest and rapidly growing metropolitan areas like Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, and San Antonio. Over the past few decades Texas cities have experienced phenomenal population growth. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that the percentage of the Texas population living in urban areas rose from 82.5 to 86.8 percent between 1980 and 2000. The Agriculture Department's summary data for Texas also show how much more difficult life is in rural areas of the state, with lower levels of educational attainment, lower wages, and higher rates of poverty.
These regional patterns are part of the continuously unfolding process of settlement in Texas. The next section provides a historical overview of settlement and migration patterns that helped constitute the regionalism we find in the state today.