To become the city the future needs it to be, Houston must invest in its people more than ever before

PERSPECTIVES :  Feb. 21, 2023

Houston in 1980

The Houston skyline in 1980. Carol Highsmith/Library of Congress

When my family and I moved here from the East Coast in the early 1970s, Houston was a booming oil-based metropolis, riding the key resource of the industrial age to continuing prosperity. It was also world-famous for having imposed the fewest restrictions on development of any large American city. This was the undisputed energy capital of the world, the “Golden Buckle of the Sun Belt,” the bastion of classical laissez-faire capitalism, the epitome of “free enterprise” America — a city to be built almost entirely by developers’ decisions.

Note: This post was originally published in the Houston Chronicle. 

In the spring of 1982, it fell to my lot to teach a research methods class to sociology majors at Rice University. A friend had just started a new survey organization, and we invited the students to participate in a study to measure how area residents were balancing the exhilaration of the city’s burgeoning prosperity with growing concerns about crime, traffic, pollution and the other “social costs” of Houston’s unfettered growth. 

Suddenly, two months after that first survey was completed, in May 1982, the oil boom collapsed. A global recession had suppressed the demand for oil and gas just as new supplies were coming onto world markets. By mid-1983, this once-booming city had lost almost 100,000 jobs. It was clear that we would need to conduct the survey again the following year to measure the impact of the new circumstances, and then in every year after that.

Thus it is that for more than four decades, the Kinder Houston Area Survey has been tracking systematically the demographic characteristics, life experiences, attitudes and beliefs of successive representative samples of Harris County residents. Through intensive interviews reaching a total of more than 50,000 Houstonians, we have been asking many of the same questions from one year to the next. 

Now, after 50 years in Houston, I’ll be moving soon to the Washington, D.C., area to be closer to children and grandchildren. Before I leave this remarkable city of ours, let me share what I think we’ve learned from the 41 years of surveys. 

The research documents significant developments in the way area residents perceive and understand their changing city. Not yet, however, have Houston’s political and civic leaders been able to fully come to grips with the shifts that have occurred in the public’s opinions and beliefs. Not yet has the city been able to build on the attitude changes the surveys reveal to develop targeted public policies capable of responding effectively to our critical challenges.

Houston’s demographic transformations have been truly remarkable. In the census of 1980, this was still essentially a bi-racial Southern city: 63% of all area residents were Anglos, 20% Blacks, 16% Hispanics, and 2% Asians. After the collapse of the oil boom, the Anglo population stopped growing. Virtually all the city’s expansion since 1982 has come from the influx of Asians, African Americans and Hispanics. 

Houston has been transformed into one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse metropolitan areas in the country. By the time of the 2020 Census, Harris County was just 28% Anglo, along with 43% Hispanic, 19% African American and 10% Asian.

It’s not just about the numbers; it’s also a matter of age. The 76 million Americans who were born between 1946 and 1964 (the bulging "Baby Boom” generation) are now aged 59 to 77, and they are disproportionately composed of Anglos. The younger populations, who will be the workers, citizens, voters and taxpayers in the years ahead, are predominantly non-Anglo. 

Of all the Harris County residents today who are under the age of 20, 51% are Hispanics, 19% are Blacks, 9% are Asians and 21% are Anglos. No force in the world will stop Houston, or Texas or America from becoming more Asian, more African American, more Hispanic and less Anglo as the 21st century unfolds. 

Meanwhile, in the wake of globalization and automation, most of the city’s good blue-collar jobs have been disappearing. The gap between rich and poor in Houston is expanding, predicated above all on access to the educational credentials and technical skills that today’s jobs require. 

As indicated earlier, fully 70% of all area residents under the age of 20 are Hispanic or African American, the two communities that are by far the most likely to be living in poverty and that have been the least well-served by the city’s educational institutions. Clearly, if Houston’s Black and Hispanic young people are unprepared to succeed in the 21st century economy, it is hard to envision a prosperous future for the city as a whole.

In response to these new realities, significant changes have been taking place in the public’s support for policies designed to reduce the inequalities. Here are some of the survey findings:

• Since the mid-1990s, we have been asking area residents to indicate which of these statements comes closer to their opinion about the public schools in Houston: “The schools have enough money, if it were used wisely, to provide a quality education”; or “In order for the schools to provide a quality education, significantly more money will be needed.”

In 1997, 61% said the schools have all the money they need. But in 2022, 67% asserted that the schools will need significantly more money in order to provide a quality education.

These findings underscore a consequential shift among area residents in their understanding of the need for more generous and sustained investments in public schools if the city is to succeed in the new economy. Yet Houston and Texas are still near the bottom among U.S. cities and states in their per capita spending on public education.

 • We asked the survey participants what they would do if they suddenly had to come up with $400 to meet an emergency expense.

One-third said they would either have to borrow the funds or they would simply not be able to come up with that kind of money. This was the case for 7% of Asians and 13% of Anglos, but for more than 40% of African Americans and Hispanics. In sum, close to half of all Houston’s Blacks and Hispanics are living on the edge, just one small unexpected expense away from bankruptcy.

•  Houston has one of the greatest conglomerations of medical institutions in the world, but it is also among the U.S. cities with the highest percentage of children who have no health insurance. Fully one-fourth of all the respondents in the 2022 survey said they were uninsured, in numbers ranging from 11% among Asians to 41% for Hispanics. 

Area residents also appear to be rethinking their traditional beliefs about the causes of poverty in America and reconsidering their opposition to government programs. Growing numbers now acknowledge that people can fall into poverty through no fault of their own, and that government needs to play a more active role in strengthening the social safety net and in fostering greater economic opportunity across the board:

• We have asked area residents if they thought that “Most people who receive welfare payments are really in need of help, or are they taking advantage of the system.” The proportions who believe that welfare recipients are truly in need of the help they receive grew from 34% in 2010, to 56% in 2020, and to 69% in 2022. 

• The number of survey respondents who agreed that “The government has a responsibility to help reduce the inequalities between rich and poor in America” increased from 55% in 2009, to 63% in 2019, to 89% in 2021. 

• Support for “federal health insurance to cover the medical costs of all Americans” grew from 64% in 2010 to 77% in 2022.

The findings make it clear that area residents have been changing significantly in their understanding of the most important challenges facing this city. It remains to be seen whether Houston’s business and civic leaders will be able to build on the attitude shifts the surveys reveal to undertake the kinds of collective and sustained investments that will clearly be needed for broad-based prosperity in this time of economic, demographic and technological transformation.

What happens in Houston matters. This is where, for better or worse, the American future is going to be worked out. By 2050, all of America will have the same demographic mix as Houston today. This city is called upon to take the lead in building something that has never existed before in human history — a truly successful, equitable and inclusive multiethnic society, made up of virtually all the peoples, all the ethnicities, all the religions of the world, gathered together in this one remarkable place. 

Houston has been getting many things right in its efforts to enhance the city’s prospects in the 21st century. (Consider, for example, the recent public and private investments that have transformed the bayous and parks, and have helped to turn Houston into one of the greenest cities in America.) 

Where the city is failing most spectacularly is in its seeming inability to invest in its citizens, to expand significantly area residents’ access to high-quality lifelong education. These are the investments that will ultimately determine whether or not Houston is positioned for lasting success in today’s high-technology, knowledge-based, global economy.

It is good to know that the Kinder Houston Area Survey will continue to track the ongoing changes in area residents’ beliefs, attitudes and experiences through the next 40 years of the city’s evolution. 

Kinder Houston Area Survey

For over four decades, the Kinder Houston Area Survey has been tracking the changing attitudes and experiences of Houstonians.



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