Dr. Stephen Klineberg has been asking Houston-area residents their views on politics, education and life in the state’s biggest city for more than 30 years. The annual study, known as the Kinder Houston Area Survey, shines a light on how the community has evolved and the challenges it will face in the future.
Klineberg, the Kinder Institute’s founding director, spoke with senior editor Ryan Holeywell about this year’s survey, how the region has changed, and what the future holds for Houston.
RH: What part of the survey do you think will surprise Houstonians the most?
SK: One of the big surprises is that, with the drop in the price of oil and the jobs being lost, more people are optimistic about the economy than ever before. We’re not all in the oil business anymore, so it hasn’t yet had much impact. The unemployment rate in Houston is still a full percentage point below the national average. That’s penetrated the consciousness of Houstonians.
The last time optimism about the economy was as high as it is now was just before the total collapse of the Houston economy in 1982. We don’t expect that. But it’s an important thing to know.
RH: You’ve been conducting the survey since 1982. Did anything in this year’s survey surprise you?
SK: This year we surveyed more people in Fort Bend and Montgomery counties. There’s striking contrasts between their ethnic composition, political affiliations and education levels. So I would have expected more differences in their outlooks. But there were only slight differences overall. There’s a clear sense of all of us being part of a community.
RH: How have Houstonians’ political beliefs evolved over the last few decades?
SK: It’s striking to see in Houston, and the nation as a whole, this whole sea change on gay rights that’s occurred. We ask in the survey whether homosexuality is something that people choose. The percent saying it’s not a choice has grown significantly and consistently. Today, people see homosexuality as part of human variation.
There’s been no change in views on abortion rights, but absolute consistency in the population of Houstonians saying while they believe abortion is morally wrong, they’d oppose a law that would make it more difficult to obtain one. I think that’s a powerful recognition of the power of diverse lifestyles and experiences.
There’s also been a gradual and unmistakable decline in support for the death penalty. It’s a reflection of a city prepared to embrace diversity and recognize that this is who we are. We may not have chosen it, but Houston is as the forefront of the country’s religious and ethnic demographic transformation.
RH: The Houston area is racially diverse, but the survey also reveals that residents don’t have a particularly positive view of race relations here. Why is that?
SK: Since 1992, we’ve been asking people how they rate racial relations. In Anglo, Latino and African-American communities, there’s been a continual and gradual improvement in those evaluations. That was until last year, when it went down in all three communities. So we were interested in seeing whether it would stay down or come back up this year. Largely, it’s gone back up – but not among African-Americans.
We think the experiences in Ferguson and elsewhere have reminded people in Houston – where we haven’t had those types of episodes – of their vulnerability.
For Latinos, in every election year – 2004, 2008 and 2012 – there’s been a significant drop-off in their positive evaluations. Clearly it has something to do with the rhetoric of the campaign. It’s turned around in this year’s survey.
It’s interesting to see these growing, positive feeling overall – but it’s a reminder of how problematic these things still are. It shows that a transformation as profound and universal as the one we’re experiencing in Houston can’t happen without a degree of conflict and anxiety across all communities.
RH: Your survey indicates that a growing number of Houstonians are interested in dense, urban living. Why are their opinions changing?
SK: Houston is the most spread out, the least dense and the most automotive-dependent city in America. Our nine-county area is almost as large as the entire state of Massachusetts, and it’s larger than the state of New Jersey. Everyone drives everywhere.
But you ask the question of where you want to live, and 50 percent of people in Harris County want a single-family residential area, and 50 percent say they want to live in a place with a mix of restaurants, shops and workplaces.
The big force that’s going on here is we are a different kind of folk from when we all went out to the suburbs the in the 1960s and 1970s, when two-thirds of families had children living at home. Today, less than a third of American households have children at home. A bunch of us are empty-nesters, and there are a whole bunch of creatives who are in no hurry to have children. Now we’re different people with different needs. Houston needs to reinvent itself and position itself for prosperity.
RH: Once again, Houstonians identified traffic as the single-biggest problem facing the city. Has that always been the case?
SK: It wasn’t two years ago, when they considered the economy to be the dominant problem. And in the 1990s, crime was the preoccupation. The more powerful question is the one we asked of people who’ve lived here for three years or longer: has traffic gotten better? More than ever before, people are saying no, it’s gotten worse. It’s going to be the endemic problem for Houston.
If we’re going to accommodate another 1 million people coming to Harris County in the next 20 years, you can’t build enough roads. You can’t solve the transportation problem by everyone driving any more. We have to provide options. Increasingly people are rethinking what needs to be done. Building more roads and adding more cars is simply not the way to go forward, and it seems the public understands that.
RH: Are there any questions you plan on adding to the survey next year?
SK: The value of the survey is in tracking the answers to the same questions over time. But I think we want to focus a bit more on urban choices. We have the first ever comprehensive plan for Houston’s future, and I think there might be important elements of the plan that we want to incorporate in the survey as people think about what kind of city we want to be.
RH: What’s the biggest takeaway from this year’s study?
SK: There are broad, general, fundamental challenges for a city confronting the two revolutions of our time. It’s a new economy, where education is critical, and we’re in a demographic revolution. The most powerful reality is that 70 percent of everyone living in Harris County under age 20 is African-American or Latino. That’s Houston’s future.
Education is going to be the critical, fundamental question. This is a done deal. No force in the world is going to stop it. The only question we’ve been given is how do we make it work? How we invest in the education of African-Americans and Latinos, to ensure they can succeed in the 21st Century, will be the measure of the city we’re going to build.