Grayson County, Texas | American Quilt | Evangelical Epicenters
In October, Ad Age began a yearlong look at the American Consumer. Working with Esri and the Patchwork Nation, we are tracking 11 households in 11 representative counties to examine the impact of demographic and economic change on consumer behavior. In this piece we introduce one of those households. For more on the project and segments, see http://adage.com/consumer
Sage advice in business or dating: Never talk politics or religion when you first meet someone. But when you're trying to find a candidate to represent the Patchwork Nation's "Evangelical Epicenter" county type, you need to find a way to draw out crucial details without stepping in conversational land mines. As I was recruiting Jennifer, I was thinking about how to do that .
Rick Perry had just entered the presidential race, so the Texas economy was very much in the news. I brought this up with Jennifer, a resident of Grayson County, on the northern edge of the Dallas metroplex. She said she wasn't a particular fan of his. That seemed like a bad sign. These areas are, as you'd guess, overwhelmingly Republican.
"Why not?" I asked, trying to sound nonthreatening while I probed.
"It's kind of a personal thing," Jennifer said -- meaning that she didn't like him personally, not that this was an off-limits topic. Turns out that when she lived in Austin they attended the same church. She didn't care for the way he carried himself like a rock star in a setting grounded in humility. He just rubbed her the wrong way, but she suspects she'd have that reaction to a lot of politicians.
We never really talked about issues, or which candidates she did like. We moved on to other subjects — like the part-time fellowship work she does at her local church — but I knew I'd found my subject for this tricky county. She's perfect in the ways you'd hope for and the ways you wouldn't even think about.
Jennifer sits in her Toyota Forerunner in the Walmart Stores parking lot. The two car seats in the back are empty. She's just dropped her 3- and 1-year-old sons at preschool. After Walmart she will swing by the cleaners and get some laundry and cleaning done before heading out again to pick up the boys. But she's stopping to visit with me in one of the only places a suburban mom finds peace these days: her SUV. The air conditioner is on high. It's 90 and climbing on a late August morning in Texas, where they've had a brutal summer. When she says it's "hot," she pronounces it with a 'w.' Hawt, indeed.
She loves the suburbs for their convenience. Walmart is five minutes away; school is seven. Jennifer laments the time wasted in traffic when she was living in Dallas. The errand outing is a daily one. Today (and most days) it's Walmart for groceries and maybe some school supplies for the boys. Everyone needs crayons.
"I guess you could say it's partly lack of planning," she admits. "But I also love to cook, and so the day will come and I'll plan my meals and figure out what I want." Breakfast and lunch are always taken care of in advance, but dinner tends to be more of a day-of -game decision. She likes to experiment with recipes. At the moment she's on a Mediterranean kick, playing with pesto, Kalamata olives and basil. Tonight is fish and fruit. The boys are eating a lot of fruit these days. The 3-year-old is a picky eater, at least this month. "I guess asserting himself as a vegetarian. He's just not been eating much meat, or even carbs. He will eat fruit like it is crack."
She cooks most of the food for her family and is trying to keep things healthy -- part of the reason she has used her new ice cream maker only twice all summer. It's also time-consuming, which is why most of these small kitchen devices surface just occasionally, right?
Even Jennifer's fun purchases now have a practical aspect. You could actually say her spending habits have been shaped by jeans and children.
"I used to go to Neiman Marcus every day almost and buy makeup or something, because I thought it made me feel better -- retail therapy. When I was younger … I had to have the latest and greatest purse all the time. I wanted a new purse every time I went out, I wanted new jeans every time I went out. I mean, who needs 20 pair of jeans?"
"And then you have kids. I look back and think of all the money that I went through when I was younger, and what do I have to show for it? So that 's kind of where I come from when I make decisions on spending."
"AND THEN YOU HAVE KIDS"
As her demographics shifted, so did everything else.
Jennifer grew up here in Sherman, Texas. When she headed to Austin for college, she said, "I remember watching it in my rearview mirror and being like, 'I will never, ever move back to Sherman, Texas.' " That resolve lasted 11 years. She taught in Austin after graduation, then moved to Dallas and taught there. But the big city was a little too big. "I don't want to say it's 'pretentious,' you can find that everywhere. They call it the 'Concrete Jungle,' and that 's what it is . Everybody is career, business."
Now just over an hour out of Dallas, she goes there to visit friends and for an occasional Longhorns or Mavericks game. The suburbs have grown so that some of the towns have all the same retail that were once restricted to the city itself. "You used to go shopping in Dallas, and now there's all the same stuff in Allen, which is only 35 minutes [away]."
She's 31 and married with two young kids, and she seems happy to be back in a smaller town. Until recently, Jennifer worked part-time (usually from home) on behalf of her church. But she isn't a typical stay-at-home mom. For one thing, she has a pair of master's degrees, in business administration and higher education. She taught high school in Dallas until her first child was a year old.She was able to keep working after he was born because her school district front-loaded her classes in the morning, essentially giving her part-time hours. It was pretty ideal, but her husband's job took them back to Sherman. He's an attorney in the public sector. "You wouldn't guess it, though, if you met him. He's not a typical lawyer, he's actually nice," she says as a reflex, defending him against a presumed anti-lawyer bias.
For the better part of a year he commuted while they lived in Dallas, or they stayed at her parent's house in Sherman (they have retired to Colorado part-time) and she commuted. Many Grayson County residents work in Dallas, but commuting wasn't something they wanted to do long-term.
CHURCHES AND QUILTS
Grayson County sits on the border with Oklahoma -- which Texans would like you to overlook -- so the region is called Texoma. The county's website features animated American flags and a bold God Bless America sandwiched between two eagle heads.
Evangelical Epicenters like Grayson County tend to be smaller towns, largely white and non-Hispanic. They skew slightly younger and lower-income and have a lower cost-of -living. This is the second-poorest community type in the Patchwork Nation's framework. Grayson County's population is roughly 120,000, according to the 2010 Census, a rise of almost 10% from 2000. About a third of country residents are in Sherman, the county seat. Its Wikipedia page cites a magazine story from Lone Star Outdoor News that this is the one part of Texas where deer-hunting is acceptable only with bows.
These counties are characterized by an abundance of churches, many of them with fairly small congregations. Jennifer's church, where a few hundred attendees at Sunday services, is large by Sherman standards.
Jennifer doesn't consider the area evangelical per se but acknowledges that "churches around here are like a dime a dozen. People are always starting new [ones]." It can be a problem for businesses and retailers. Local ordinances prevent certain kinds of businesses from being to close to a church. "There are tons of little tiny churches that meet just downtown in little buildings or little rooms, but they consider themselves a church," she said. "I can't imagine how many official churches are in this town, but are they really what I would consider a church?"
In Esri's Tapestry, the dominant segment here is American Quilt. While in some ways similar to the Factories and Farms segment, American Quilt areas tend to be a bit more affluent and more small town than rural. Their economies are also more diverse, with sectors including manufacturing, agriculture, public- and private-sector services, construction and communications.
As a married white couple with young children, they are a pretty typical household for these areas. They are in the kind of neighborhood that folks from surrounding communities descend on for good trick-or-treating -- only adding to Jennifer's dislike of Halloween, which she calls "kind of a pain." The family lives in a four-bedroom ranch home, with the bedrooms at one end and a large game room (formerly a mother-in-law suite) on the other. Just off the kitchen, that space is where the family spends most of their time. Toy chests have replaced the pool table, though the bar remains.
Jennifer's follows her father's lead in investing. She's never feels she saves enough, but she's doing everything she can for herself while she worries about U.S. debt and the situation worldwide. "[The nation's] going broke," she said. "And when you look at the global economy. ... I just don't see how we can stay where we've been in the past in the upcoming years."
The evolving political landscape may affect Jennifer's sense of personal financial security, but her current concerns weren't enough to keep her from leaving her job. The income reduction will take some getting used to. Savings, rather than spending, could be a target in the family's budget process, but time will tell.