Oil's Not So Well In America's Saddest City: Beaumont, Texas

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Back in 2008 Beaumont was listed as the 2nd worst city in America to raise a family. Low marks were given because of “long standing air quality challenges”, so quite literally there's just something in the air. Now Beaumont has been ranked by University of Vermont researchers, using data from Twitter, as the saddest city in America followed closely by its neighbor Port Arthur.

As a Beaumont native this does not surprise me. About 10 miles before you reach the city, you can see the amber glow of the refineries, and thats when the smell hits your nose. Fortunately, after just a few hours you don't even notice it anymore. But, as anyone would imagine families are not flocking to Southeast Texas. In fact the region has lost much political clout over the years to other high growth areas like Harris County. Just 20 years ago Beaumont was home to a Democratic congressman and a Democratic state senator but now both have been lost to Republicans from “Houston”.

Looking over basic facts about Beaumont it really should still be a “boomtown” and not have the phrase be an ironic ode to the past. It's near Houston, smack between San Antonio and New Orleans on the nation's busiest interstate, it has the 4th largest port in America, great food and creative people. Unfortunately for Beaumont there seems to be forces even stronger than nature or infrastructure that keeps progress at bay. Young people with ambition and ideas often get frustrated and leave the area for places like Austin. Some of those folks include former Austin Mayor Will Wynn and musician Janis Joplin. Even companies that started there have tapped out including Conn's, Sweet Leaf Tea and Texaco. For some folks the environment is actually good for business, Beaumont is home to some of the country's wealthiest trial lawyers which also helped get it the honorable title of “judicial hellhole”.

Now let's get back to the lack of economic diversity issue. Oil prices continue to rise but the population and quality of life for Southeast Texans has not. Unemployment at 8.4% is 3% higher than the state average while median household income is $10,000 less than the state average.  The area is ranked 5th most obese in the nation by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, costing the area almost $183 million in healthcare expenses. The cult of oil has hurt the economic growth potential of the city whose population peaked in the 1960s. Industry hails the Keystone Pipeline XL as a jobs creator but misses the broader impact of failing to diversify the local economy, and how that could affect the area's ability to foster economic growth. The local daily paper the Beaumont Enterprise conducted a non-scientific online survey of its readers and that found 88% are in support of the project. They followed up with an editorial in favor of the President approving its construction and dismissing what it called, “misguided fears that they [pipelines]are environmentally unsafe.” TransCanada claims the project with create 6,500 temporary mostly construction jobs but an independent study by Cornell University concluded it will create no more than 50 permanent jobs. Even other oil towns like Midland and Houston have learned to diversify. Just look to Flint, Michigan for what happens when you rely on only one industry too much for your area's employment. For starters, you end up on the same lists as Beaumont. Flint made both the list for worst places to raise a family as well as landing smack between Beaumont and Port Arthur on the “saddest cities” list. Maybe Beaumont's smoggy cloud of sadness presents a silver lining – because if misery loves company this new honor should do wonders for tourism.

Correction: I implied that Jason's Deli had moved its corporate offices away from Beaumont, this is not the case. My apologies, correction has been made.

About Author

Joe Deshotel

Joe was born and raised in Beaumont, Tx, but live music and politics brought him to Austin. He has worked in and around government and elections for over a decade including for a member of US Congress, the Texas Legislature, the Mayor of Austin. He currently serves as Communications Director for the Travis County Democratic Party. He is most interested in transportation, energy and technology issues. He also likes Texas Hold'em and commuting on his electric skateboard. Follow me on Twitter at @joethepleb.

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