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Kinder Houston Area Survey: Economic optimism despite oil slump

Longtime survey records Houstonians’ views on traffic, abortion, other issues

Houston-area residents are optimistic about the local economy despite the drop in oil prices and are increasingly concerned about traffic; they are personally opposed to abortion but support others' right to choose and are rethinking their views on same-sex marriage and the death penalty, according to findings from this year's Kinder Houston Area Survey. Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research conducts the annual survey, now in its 34th year. Key findings from the 2015 survey:

  • Positive ratings of local job opportunities ("excellent" or "good") increased from 60 percent in 2014 to 69 percent in 2015.
  • Sixty-five percent of Harris County residents said traffic congestion has gotten worse – a 9 percent jump since 2013.
  • Forty-three percent of the survey participants said that making improvements in public transportation is the best solution to the traffic woes; just 26 percent thought the answer lies in the traditional solution of building bigger and better roads and highways, down from 33 percent in 2011.
  • More than half – 58 percent – of area residents believe that abortion is “morally wrong,” yet 63 percent are opposed to "a law that would make it more difficult for a woman to obtain an abortion." These answers have remained essentially unchanged across the years of the surveys.

Rice sociologist Stephen Klineberg, founding director of the Kinder Institute, presented the new findings today at the 2015 Kinder Institute Annual Luncheon at the Hilton Americas in downtown Houston.

The local economy Despite slumping oil prices, area residents were more likely this year than last to rate local job opportunities as "excellent" or "good." Klineberg said these subjective evaluations mirror the official unemployment rates for Harris County -- unemployment dropped from 5.7 percent in February 2014 to 4.3 percent in 2015. "The sudden drop in crude oil prices in recent months may have tempered the exuberance Houstonians were feeling about the local economy, but the 2015 survey indicates that the job losses and reduced oil drilling in upstream production have had no discernible effect as yet on the experiences of most area residents," he said. Only 18 percent of area residents in 2015 named the economy as the biggest problem in Houston, compared with 37 percent in 2012.

Traffic and public transportation Traffic congestion has continued to worsen, according to 65 percent of the Harris County residents who have lived in the area for three years or more. This number jumped from 56 percent in 2013 and from 53 percent in 2011. In addition, more than a quarter – 28 percent – of those surveyed this year spontaneously named traffic as Houston’s biggest problem. When area residents were asked to indicate which of three proposals would be the best solution to the region's traffic woes, 43 percent chose "making improvements in public transportation, such as trains, buses and light rail," and 27 percent called for "developing communities where people can live closer to where they work and shop." Only 26 percent thought that the traditional solution, "building bigger and better roads and highways," would be an effective way to reduce traffic congestion in the Houston area.

Diversity and beliefs about immigration Throughout the history of the survey, the proportion of area residents giving positive ratings (“excellent” or “good”) to the overall relations among Houston's racial and ethnic groups has increased steadily in all the major ethnic communities. However, the number of positive evaluations declined for all groups between 2013 and 2014; this year's survey shows that ethnic relations have begun to turn around once again, Klineberg said. Between 2014 and 2015, the ratings improved for Anglos from 53 to 56 percent, were stable among blacks at 37 and 36 percent, and grew significantly from 35 to 46 percent for Hispanics, he said. The proportion of area residents who would like to see the U.S. admit more or the same number of immigrants in the next 10 years as were admitted in the last 10 years grew from 54 percent in 2009, to 69 percent in 2013 and to 72 percent in 2015. The percentage in favor of "granting illegal immigrants a path to legal citizenship if they speak English and have no criminal record," which had moved from 64 percent in 2009 to as high as 83 percent in 2013, was at 72 percent in this year’s survey. The survey found that 59 percent of those surveyed in 2015 asserted that the increasing immigration "mostly strengthens" -- rather than "mostly threatens" -- American culture. That was consistent with the 60 percent who felt that way in 2013 and was up significantly from 47 percent in 2011 and 52 percent in 2009. "As the number of new immigrants has declined in recent years and area residents have had several decades of experience with Houston as an immigrant destination, concerns about the impact of these newcomers seems be fading," Klineberg said.

Differences between Fort Bend, Harris and Montgomery counties In a special focus this year, identical questions were asked of about 400 residents each from Fort Bend and Montgomery counties so that direct comparisons could be drawn with the attitudes and beliefs of the respondents from Harris County. "The data indicate that residents in the three counties differ importantly in their party affiliations, ratings of ethnic relationships, views on immigration and support for the death penalty," Klineberg said. “But they also show widespread agreement on many critical issues.” For example, 40 percent of Fort Bend County spontaneously named traffic as their predominant concern, compared with 28 percent of those from Harris or Montgomery. The residents of Montgomery County were somewhat more likely to mention economic concerns, and those in Harris County more frequently cited crime as the biggest problem. When asked what sort of neighborhood they would prefer to live in, the residents of Harris County were evenly divided. As in past years, 49 percent opted for a "single-family residential area," and 49 percent called for "an area with a mix of developments, including homes, shops and restaurants." Even in the two suburban, more car-oriented counties, 40 percent expressed a preference for more urbanized, mixed-development neighborhoods, Klineberg said. When asked specifically about the best solution to traffic congestion, more than 40 percent of respondents in all three counties (43 percent in Harris County, 45 percent in Fort Bend County and 45 percent in Montgomery County) called for major improvements in public transportation. Fewer than one-third of the respondents in any of the counties thought the best solution involves "building bigger and better roads and highways." The survey found that 53 percent of respondents in Montgomery County think that the increasing immigration strengthens American culture, compared with 60 percent from both Fort Bend and Harris counties. Only 45 percent of Montgomery County residents rated the relations among ethnic groups in the Houston area as "good" or "excellent," compared with 49 percent of Harris County residents and 54 percent of Fort Bend County residents. "An overall positive evaluation of the new diversity appears to be unfolding throughout the Houston region," Klineberg said. "At the same time, the enthusiasm is far from unanimous, which is a reminder that changes of this magnitude are inevitably experienced with mixed feelings, especially among older Anglos who came of age in the very different world of the 1960s and 1970s.” Political affiliations also were significantly different among the three counties. In Harris County, about 45 percent of respondents said they were Democrats and 32 percent were Republicans. In Montgomery County, 53 percent identified as Republicans and 29 percent as Democrats. Fort Bend County was evenly divided, with 41 percent identifying with each of the major parties. The remainder in each of the three counties considered themselves to be independent or expressed no political preference, Klineberg said.

Social issues In the 2015 survey, 58 percent of Harris County residents said they personally believed that abortion was "morally wrong." At the same time, 63 percent were opposed to "a law that would make it more difficult for a woman to obtain an abortion." "A large portion of area residents espouse traditional values for themselves, yet respect the rights of others to make different decisions in their own lives," Klineberg said. "It is largely because of this that Houston has been able to develop into a modern, progressive and tolerant city." Houstonians are also increasingly accepting of same-sex marriage: 51 percent of those surveyed this year agreed that “marriages between homosexuals should be given the same legal status as heterosexual marriages.” That is up from 43 percent in 2009, 37 percent in 2001 and 31 percent in 1993. In addition, the proportion who consider homosexuality to be "morally acceptable" grew from 21 percent in 1997 to 49 percent in 2015. Support for the death penalty has also declined, with 56 percent of Houstonians today saying they are in favor of capital punishment "for persons convicted of murder," down from 75 percent in 1993.

About the Kinder Houston Area Survey Now in its 34th year, the Kinder Houston Area Survey is the nation’s longest-running study of any metropolitan area’s economy, population, life experiences, beliefs and attitudes. The 2015 survey included 1,611 respondents from Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties. Social Science Research Solutions conducted the interviews by phone between Feb. 2 and March 4. For more information on the survey, visit http://kinder.rice.edu/