The majority of area residents don’t just feel okay about living in Houston – they would choose to stay in the Bayou City even if given a choice to move, according to the 2017 Kinder Houston Area Survey. The 36th annual survey also revealed that traffic continues to be the dominant concern, people are less worried about crime and are increasingly supportive of immigration and gay rights.
Rice University Sociology Professor Stephen Klineberg, founding director of Rice’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, conducted the survey and will publicly release this year’s findings today at the annual Kinder Institute Luncheon at the Marriott Marquis in downtown Houston. Tom Bacon, founder of Lionstone Investments, will be the inaugural recipient of the new Stephen L. Klineberg Award for his work as chair of the Houston Parks Board and his leadership of the Bayou Greenways 2020 Project. The award recognizes an individual who has made a lasting positive impact on Greater Houston.
Life in the Houston area
Traffic continues to be the biggest problem facing people in the Houston area, according to 24 percent of this year’s survey respondents. Another 16 percent mentioned the economy and 15 percent crime. Despite these concerns, more than two-thirds of all area residents in 2017 said they would stay in the Houston metro area even if they could choose to move away.
Area residents’ preference for alternatives to car-dependent sprawl continues to grow. By 56 percent, the respondents in 2017 were more likely than at any time since the question was first asked in 2007 to say that they would prefer to live in “an area with a mix of developments, including homes, shops and restaurants.” Forty percent would prefer a “single-family residential neighborhood.”
“These shifts reflect the very different life circumstances of Americans today,” Klineberg said. “The number of families with children living at home continues to decline across the country – replaced by empty nesters and young creatives, and by single-person and elderly households. So it’s not surprising that, even in Houston, people are looking for more compact urban neighborhoods.”
The proportion of area residents who cited crime as the biggest problem in Houston has decreased steadily since the 1990s; crime was mentioned by fewer respondents this year – 15 percent – than at any other time since 2003. When asked directly about their fear of crime, only 18 percent indicated that they were “very worried” that they or a member of their family will become the victim of a crime – the lowest figure since the question was first asked in 1995, when 43 percent expressed that fear.
Sixty-nine percent of the survey participants “strongly agreed” with the statement, “If I needed assistance from the police, I would feel comfortable calling them for help”; another 18 percent “slightly agreed.” Eighty-one percent of U.S.-born Anglos strongly agreed with this statement, as did almost three-fourths (72 percent) of Hispanic immigrants – an unexpected finding, according to the researchers. In sharp contrast, less than half (49 percent) of U.S.-born African-Americans strongly agreed that they would feel comfortable calling the police if they needed assistance; more than one-fourth (26 percent) disagreed.
“As of early 2017, it is clear that African-American relations with the local police are by far the most problematic,” Klineberg said. “Not yet, at any rate, is there any evidence of growing mistrust of the police on the part of Hispanic immigrants.”
Jobs and education
Nearly two-thirds – 64 percent – of this year’s survey participants (it was 62 percent in 2016) said job opportunities in the Houston area were “excellent” or “good,” even after two years of low oil prices, mounting layoffs in the energy industry and a local unemployment rate that has risen to 5.9 percent in February 2017 – more than one point higher than the national figure of 4.7 percent in February.
“It will be interesting to see if area residents’ continued confidence in the local economy is confirmed by an actual drop in the unemployment rates in the months ahead,” Klineberg said.
A report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has documented the declining numbers of jobs in America that require no more than a high school diploma. The national data indicate that in 2010, 60 percent of all the jobs required postsecondary credentials of some sort. The report predicted that number will rise to 65 percent by 2020.
“Strikingly, the percentage of area residents who believe education beyond high school really is a prerequisite for success in today’s economy actually declined from 73 percent in 2013 to 54 percent in 2017,” Klineberg said.
“The beliefs reflect America’s political divisions: Trump voters in this year’s survey were far more likely (at 55 percent) than those who voted for Clinton (at 35 percent) to assert that ‘there are many ways to succeed in today’s economy with no more than a high school diploma,’” he said.
Hispanics and African-Americans are consistently more likely than Anglos to affirm the importance of postsecondary credentials. Fifty-eight percent of Hispanics and 54 percent of African-Americans in 2017, compared with 48 percent of Anglos, thought that education beyond high school is needed to be successful.
“If Houston’s African-American and Hispanic residents are not getting the education they need to succeed in today’s economy,” Klineberg said, “it is demonstrably not because they do not value that education or understand its importance.”
Houstonians are becoming increasingly comfortable with immigration and diversity in general. Today more than 70 percent of respondents (up from 55 percent in 2011) said they wanted the U.S. to admit the same number of legal immigrants or more in the next 10 years as were admitted in the last 10 years. Sixty-five percent said the increasing immigration into this country today mostly strengthens, rather than threatens, American culture, compared with 46 percent in 2011; and 79 percent this year, up from 69 percent in 2011, were in favor of “granting illegal immigrants a path to legal citizenship, if they speak English and have no criminal record.”
Comparable shifts have occurred in area residents’ support for gay rights. More than half – 56 percent – of the survey participants in 2017 considered homosexuality to be “morally acceptable,” compared with 35 percent in 2009 and with 21 percent in 1997. Support for same-sex marriage increased from 31 percent in 1993, to 43 percent in 2009 and to 60 percent in this year’s survey. More than half (53 percent) in this year’s survey, up from 38 percent in 2009, said “homosexuality is something people cannot change” rather than “something people choose.”
Why attitudes have changed
The three decades of annual surveys make it possible to determine whether consistent shifts in the public’s attitudes toward immigration and gay rights are the result of area residents actually changing their minds over time, or are due instead to younger generations supplanting earlier ones and coming into the public sphere with different views, Klineberg said.
“The data indicate clearly that members of the Baby Boom generation (born between 1946 and 1964) have indeed changed their minds about gay rights. The belief that homosexuality is morally acceptable, for example, increased from 29 percent when the question was asked of the Anglo Baby Boomers in the 1990s to 45 percent in more recent years.”
With regard to questions about immigration, in contrast, there is no evidence that minds have been changed. “Members of the Baby Boom were voicing similar beliefs about immigration in the 2010s as they were in the 1990s,” Klineberg said. “They have been expressing the same views over the years about whether immigration strengthens or threatens American culture, about immigrants’ contributions to the American economy and about the number of legal immigrants the U.S. should admit in the next 10 years.
“Meanwhile on virtually all the questions asking both about gay rights and about immigration, successive generations of area residents are bringing decidedly more accepting views into the public arena.” The 2017 study compared three successive generations (“Baby Boomers,” “Gen. Xers” and “Millennials”), all of whom were interviewed at the same point in their lives (at ages 25 to 35). The data indicate that the more recent generations are coming into adulthood with views that reflect much stronger support for gay rights and far more favorable attitudes toward immigration in comparison with earlier generations.
“The younger generations of Anglo Houstonians are taking for granted what older generations still find difficult to accept,” Klineberg said. “The ongoing processes of generational replacement will clearly help to smooth this city’s transition into the multi-ethnic world of the 21st century.”
Despite the evidence of improving relations among Houston’s ethnic communities, most Anglos continue to resist moving into neighborhoods where a majority of families are African-American or Hispanic. Anglo respondents were asked how likely they were to buy a house in a neighborhood with good schools and low crime rates, and with varying percentages of African-Americans or Hispanics in the neighborhood.
Seventy-nine percent of the Anglo respondents said they would be “very likely” to move into a desirable neighborhood if it was 30 percent African-American and 70 percent Anglo, but that figure drops to less than half (48 percent) when the proportion of African-American families reaches 60 percent. A similar but less dramatic fall-off (from 70 to 58 percent) occurs when the neighborhood changes from 30 to 60 percent Hispanic. These responses have not changed at all since 2004, when the questions were last asked. Moreover, there were no consistent effects of a neighborhood’s ethnic composition on the housing preferences of either Hispanics or African-Americans.
“It seems undeniable that Houston’s persistently high levels of residential segregation are at least in part a reflection of the continuing preferences and concerns of Anglo Houstonians themselves,” Klineberg said.
About the Kinder Houston Area Survey
Now in its 36th 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 2017 survey included 827 respondents from Harris County, 400 from Fort Bend County and 402 from Montgomery County. Social Science Research Solutions conducted the interviews by telephone — both landline and cellphone — between Jan. 24 and March 1, 2017.
For more information on the survey, visit http://kinder.rice.edu/.