Houston Attitudes Changing on Inequality, Urban Life

(Photo by Katie Haugland)

Houston residents are becoming more secular, more Democratic, and more tolerant of Muslims, refugees, and undocumented immigrants, according to the 2016 Kinder Houston Area Survey. They’re also increasingly concerned with the mounting inequities of American life, despite feeling optimistic overall about the economy and their personal futures. Conducted by the Kinder Institute at Rice University and now in its 35th year, the survey is the nation’s longest-running study of a metropolitan area’s economy, population, beliefs and attitudes. (Note: The Kinder Institute is hosting Next City’s 2016 Vanguard conference in May.)

The 2016 Kinder Survey looked back at 35 years of changing demographics, revealing the transformation of a largely white, Protestant city with an oil-based economy into a diverse city of immigrants and their children, and a city increasingly striving to improve its aesthetic and environmental appeal to attract the companies and workers who will usher in a new, knowledge-based economy.

Traffic continues to be residents’ most pressing concern, with 29 percent of respondents in Harris County — where Houston sits — reporting congestion as the area’s biggest problem, followed by crime and the economy. But residents are also moving toward a more urban outlook. More are taking advantage of an expanding park and trail system, with monthly users up 13 percent in 2012. And 50 percent of those surveyed said they’d used a hike or bike trail at least once a month in the previous year, up from 30 percent in 2012. Harris County residents were evenly split in their preference for a smaller home in a more urbanized, walkable area rather than a single-family home with a big yard that requires driving to get anywhere. Roughly 18 percent of Harris County respondents who said they wanted to live in a more urban setting, however, reported that they don’t live in such a neighborhood now. A Kinder blog post posited a number of factors for the mismatch: Job centers remain spread out through both suburban and urban areas, so people may live outside the city to be closer to work. There’s also a perception that suburban schools are better. Most pressingly, home prices inside Houston’s urban, walkable core have skyrocketed in recent years, even as housing production has increased. Last year the city suspended a program to incentivize multifamily construction in the downtown area — because it had been so successful.

Overall, perception of life in Houston area is good and getting and better, according to Kinder. Eighty-one percent of 2016 respondents said the region is an excellent or good place to live, up from 70 percent in 2006. Thirty-eight percent said that living conditions have been getting better over the past three to four years, compared with 37 percent in 2014 and 28 percent in 2012. The majority of respondents — 61 percent — said they were optimistic about their personal futures, too, believing they will be financially better off in three or four years, compared with 54 percent in 2015. Sixty-two percent saw the local job market positively, down from 69 percent in 2015. Despite the low price of oil, the region’s unemployment rate remains low.

The positive outlook was tempered by growing concerns about inequality. According to this Kinder blog post, the Houston-Galveston area has been outpacing the national average for job growth since 1990, while also becoming increasingly divided between rich and poor. The percentage of poor people living in neighborhoods where 40 percent or more of residents live in poverty has doubled since 1980. This year’s Kinder survey revealed that support for government efforts to strengthen economic opportunity is growing across Houston. Sixty-three percent overall said the government should act to reduce income inequality, up from 45 percent in 2010. A full 76 percent said this year that the government should ensure everyone who wants a job has one, compared to 69 percent in 2009. Empathy is up too: Forty-three percent believe that people who receive welfare payments are really in need of help, up from 31 percent in 2010, and 59 percent believe that too little is being spent to improve conditions for the poor, up from 51 percent in 2014. (Recent census data puts the city’s poverty rate at nearly 23 percent.)

But disparities remain, in both opinions and suggested tactics. Only 46 percent of white Harris County residents agreed that the government has a responsibility to address income inequality, while 78 percent of black and 81 percent of Hispanic respondents supported the idea. Among Republican respondents, only 41 percent supported policy intervention. But Republicans were also more likely to support the idea that the government should ensure anyone who wants to work can find a job.

Some have suggested that a minimum wage increase could help address inequality. Texas relies on a larger share of minimum wage workers than most states, argues a report by liberal think tank Center for Public Policy Priorities, so a hike would benefit at least 2.4 million people. But despite recent increases in California, New York, Massachusetts and several cities nationwide, efforts to up the minimum wage in Texas have failed in the legislature. Education reform has received more bipartisan support. Republican Governor Greg Abbott has introduced several education reforms, including incentives for pre-kindergarten and high school graduation requirements that ensure curriculum is aligned with the job market.

Attitudes about criminal justice are also changing, as a nationwide conversation on policing continues. Only 27 percent of this year’s respondents thought the death penalty to be the more appropriate punishment, over life imprisonment, for first-degree murder. In 2008, that number was 38 percent. A full 64 percent believe in moving away from mandatory prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, up from 43 percent in 2011.

The survey also documented ongoing trends away from the city’s conservative roots. Residents of Harris County now lean 52 percent Democratic, compared to 30 percent Republican. That’s a 10 percent increase in Democratic identification over two years ago. As recently as 2005, the split was 37 percent Republican, 35 percent Democrat.

Interestingly, though the survey was conducted just three months after Houston voters rejected local equal rights ordinance HERO by 61 to 39 percent, 60 percent of survey respondents said it was very important to pass similar legislation. Nineteen percent said it was “somewhat important” to pass an equal rights ordinance, but 20 percent said it was “not very” or “not at all” important.

“HERO may have been defeated, but our survey shows strong and increasing support for gay rights,” said Kinder Institute Founding Director Stephen Klineberg in a statement. More than half of 2016 respondents, 56 percent, said they support gay people being legally permitted to adopt children. When the question was first asked in 1991, just 17 percent took the same position.

Participants favored permitting 10,000 Syrian refugees to enter the U.S. so long as they pass background checks, by a margin of 51 to 46 percent. An even greater percentage, 64 percent, believed that refugees in danger in their home countries should be welcome in Houston, compared to 32 percent who disagreed. Fifty-one percent expressed positive feelings toward Muslim people, up from 41 percent in 2010.

Over the years, according to the Kinder report, the survey has “consistently and unmistakably” demonstrated that Houstonians feel favorably about the new immigration that has made the city one of the country’s most ethnically diverse metro areas. Half of all respondents expressed positive feelings about “undocumented” immigrants, and more than three-fourths favor a clear path to legal citizenship for foreign-born people who speak English and have no criminal record. Sixty-three percent asserted that all immigrants generally contribute more to the American economy than they take, up from 45 percent in 2010.

Klineberg notes that all this amounts to a widening divide between Harris County residents and statewide policy. “Even as residents of Ted Cruz’s hometown are becoming more secular and more Democratic, the Texas Legislature has generally taken a different approach to immigration, gay rights and abortion,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how all this plays out in the years ahead.”

The 2016 survey included 808 respondents from Harris County and 401 each from Fort Bend and Montgomery counties, the next two most populous counties in the Houston region. However, the numbers above reflect only Harris County respondents.

Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.

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Tags: jobsincome inequalityimmigrationhoustondemographics