The economic downturn resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak coupled with the pandemic being politicized by some will challenge the feelings of solidarity and trust that have been building in Houston in recent years. It’s important to remember the city and surrounding region’s ability to unite in the face of disaster.

People show their true selves during emergencies and times of crisis.

In August 2017, the world watched as Hurricane Harvey punished the Gulf Coast of Texas with an unprecedented level of rainfall. It would be the most significant tropical cyclone rainfall event in American history. As Harvey tried to wash the Houston area away, residents united to save lives and support one another through the storm and long recovery that followed. For some, the recovery process is ongoing.

Currently, Houstonians are facing COVID-19, a public health and economic crisis that also has a long road to recovery. Throughout the pandemic, residents have again shown high levels of solidarity, staying at home and adhering to social distancing measures to slow the spread of infection.

Perhaps the frequency with which the city and its residents have dealt with natural disasters has left them better prepared to weather the pandemic.

“We have been subjected to crises on a regular basis. Maybe that’s part of what’s special about Houston,” Yousif Shamoo, Rice University’s Vice Provost for Research and a professor of Biosciences, said in March before residents were ordered to stay at home. “I would guess Houston has a significant psychological and infrastructure advantage in dealing with crises.”

Solidarity is a valuable asset during the pandemic

The Houston area’s growing sense of community solidarity is something the Kinder Houston Area Survey has been tracking since 2014 when 31% of respondents said they believed that most people can be trusted. That has increased in the years since, rising to 42% in the 2020 survey.

“The shared experience of having lived through a devastating storm and now a terrifying pandemic may have contributed to the growing sense of mutual trust and community solidarity,” Stephen Klineberg, founding director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, writes in the 2020 survey report.

“As Harris County residents confront the formidable health and economic challenges produced by the coronavirus (pandemic), they will hopefully be able to build on the sense that we are all in this together, and avoid the temptation to assign blame or to succumb to the ‘us vs. them’ mentality that has recently given rise to anti-Chinese and anti-Semitic outbursts.”

The evolution of attitudes and perceptions

This year’s survey — the 39th edition — also chronicles the continued change in residents’ basic assumptions about issues like poverty in America and the need for government intervention to reduce inequalities. Support for programs to tackle the inequalities in our society has steadily increased among Houston-area residents over the past decade.

Between 2009 and 2020, there has been a 16% increase in the number of respondents who think most people who receive welfare benefits are actually in need of help — up from 31% to 47%. Almost 80% say the government should see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a job. More than 60% think the government should take action to reduce income differences in the U.S. And the vast majority (72%) are in favor of Federal health insurance for all Americans.

At the same time, nearly 25% of all the participants in the 2020 survey said their families did not have health insurance.

Support for education, from ‘cradle to college’

Over the years, data from the Kinder survey have formed a developing picture of Houston that clearly shows residents are looking at the world differently than they did 10 or more years ago. One example is Houstonians’ increasing support for new initiatives to help advance educational opportunities.

Research has shown early childhood education’s impact on academic achievement as well as the overall trajectory of a child’s life. Those who are better prepared to begin school are less likely to drop out, have fewer behavioral problems, participate in higher levels of education, have higher rates of employment and earn more as adults than children who aren’t prepared.

“Enrolling in pre-Kindergarten is important because it’s a place where students can begin developing the skills they need to be successful when they start kindergarten,” says Erin Baumgartner, the associate director for HISD research and relations at the Kinder Institute’s Houston Education Research Consortium. “Those skills range from basic academic skills to learning how to follow directions and how to get along with their peers.”

HERC researchers have found that full-day pre-K has a very strong positive impact on school readiness. One or two years of HISD pre-K gives students a significant advantage in school readiness over peers who don’t attend pre-K, HERC analyses have shown.

“The impact is seen in the number of dropouts, and the cases of unemployment, poverty, poor health and mental health and incarceration,” HERC Director Ruth Lopez Turley told NBC Latino. “A report by McKinsey & Company estimated the economic impact of the achievement gaps to be more severe than all recessions since the 1970s — not to mention the social costs of untapped human potential.”

HERC research projects helped inform HB3, the state’s school finance bill providing $11.6 billion in funding for public schools. Part of that funding was earmarked for providing full-day pre-K in the state’s public school districts.

“Right now, pre-K is not the norm,” Baumgartner said after Gov. Greg Abbott signed HB3 in June. “It’s not provided for all students. It’s provided for the at-risk populations, so it may be less common that everyone just assumes a child should be in pre-K somewhere. I think we should be talking about universal pre-K because it’s important to change the expectations and the norms around going to pre-K.”

Local residents agree. The latest Kinder Houston Area Survey shows 70% of Harris County residents favor increasing local taxes to pay for universal preschool in Houston — 50% “strongly favor” the idea. And support is growing. In 2018, 67% favored a tax increase, but only 40% strongly favored higher taxes for universal preschool.

According to Klineberg:

“One of the moments of truth in American education is third-grade reading: If you’re not reading at the third-grade level in third grade, you are four times more likely to drop out of high school. The most powerful predictor of whether you can read at a third-grade level is: Did you start kindergarten ready to learn to read? Rich children in Houston generally enter kindergarten one and a half to two years ahead of poor children. That gap didn’t matter so much when the economy was providing plenty of low-skilled, well-paid, blue-collar jobs. Today, the educational inequalities matter enormously.”

Baumgartner says HERC is working with Good Reason Houston and the Region 4 Education Service Center to help get the word out about how to enroll in pre-K. Pre-K enrollment information can be found on Good Reason Houston’s website.

“Given the variety of other challenges families are working through right now, we want to make sure they know how to register for pre-K,” Baumgartner says.

More money needed for quality education

The survey also has tracked area residents’ outlook on school financing, which has changed. Today, the majority of residents also say schools are underfunded.

In 1995, 38% said Houston-area public schools needed significantly more funding to provide students with a quality education, while 54% said schools were adequately funded. A quarter-century later, those opinions have been inverted: 55% of respondents now say schools need more money.

“Houston’s ability to make meaningful investments, building on the public’s growing recognition of the critical importance of access to quality education, from cradle to career, will determine the city’s prospects in the years ahead,” Klineberg says.