Stephen Klineberg is animated. He's twirling his arms, and he's shuffling his feet, and his voice is jumping and falling and tripping over itself in anticipation of what he'll next say. He's as excited as a Rice University sociology professor could rightly be, sharing his latest findings of the most comprehensive urban research study in the nation.
"Houston is the embodiment of the American perspective," Klineberg tells a group of reporters Tuesday morning, detailing the results of the 32nd Annual Kinder Institute Houston Area Survey. "It's a much more typical US city than San Francisco or New York. ... This is where America will be in about twenty years -- and there's a growing comfort with it."
By now, most will have heard of the Kinder Institute's annual publication. Begun in 1982, two months before the oil bust collapsed the local economy, the city-wide survey assesses the demographic, political, and economic realities of the fourth-largest city in America. While nothing in this year's release quite matched the 2012 finding staking Houston as the most diverse city in the nation, there were a handful of trends and numbers that were even more illustrative of Houston's current state.
Before anything, it should be noted just how much we love it here. According to the survey, which polled 1,304 respondents by cell phone from Feb. 7 through March 6, 90 percent of those in Houston believe life here is preferable to other US metropolitan areas, up from 78 percent in 2005. We love it here. And we have every reason to.
Fortunately, Klineberg told Hair Balls that he believes Houston has a few years to go before incurring the backlash that Austin and Portland have recently experienced. Between now and then, though, there are a few trends to continue watching.
For instance, half of the city -- "and I can say this with the utmost confidence," Klineberg intoned -- would prefer to live in an area with mixed developments rather than a single-family residential area. This presents a slight uptick from the last few surveys, and poses an interesting issue for a town as predicated on automobiles and subdivisions as Houston. If greater Houston, now nearly the size of Massachusetts, continues to sprawl, will those who desire such mixed-use neighborhoods want to remain? Will they be fine with private yards and single drives and sequestered neighborhoods, or will their desire for a "walkability" that is currently swelling push them elsewhere?
As Klineberg noted, there's a distinct overlap between those who would want a more non-auto-centric neighborhood and those who are more inclined to treat diversity as a sign of cultural strength, rather than a cultural threat. "We live in a new world where the fear of immigration is much less," he noted.
The numbers back up the claim. As the Senate looks for a way to normalize the statuses of the 11 million residents currently without documentation, 83 percent of Houstonians claim they want to see a path laid out for legal citizenship, up from 64 percent in 2009. Moreover, 61 percent, including 68 percent of those under 30, believe that increasing immigration "strengthens, rather than threatens, American culture." (As Klineberg pointed, Fort Bend County presented the most diverse county within the most diverse large metropolitan area in the nation: 19 percent Asian, 22 percent Latino, 20 percent African-American, and 35 percent "Anglo.")
And it's not simply on immigration that Houston mirrors the national outlook. For the first time, a majority of respondents believe that "[h]omosexuality is something people cannot change." (Only 46 percent believe that same-sex marriage should be legalized, though numbers, as across the country, continue to creep upward.) Likewise, as 90 percent of Americans support further background checks among gun-purchasers, 89 percent of Houston-area residents "support universal criminal background checks for all gun sales." Forty-five percent would like to see a federal ban on assault weapons -- contra towns like League City and Gonzales -- though 51 percent came against it.
Still, while the city's makeup outpaces the holistic American demography by a few decades, and while Houston's local economy remains one of the strongest in the country, there are a few indicators that dent the rosy picture at hand. Despite an unemployment rate a full percentage point behind the national average, fewer people believe their economic opportunity will be better within the next few years (51 percent in 2013, opposed to 56 percent in 2011). Likewise, fewer people claimed that their personal financial situations had improved over the previous few years (26 percent in 2013, opposed to 28 percent in 2011).
"We asked families if they had had trouble purchasing groceries over the past few years," Klineberg said. "Twenty-four percent came back saying they'd had trouble buying their groceries. ... The macroeconomic indicators can no longer be shown to predict individual financial situations."
That being said, the economic engine continues to chug, and Houston's majority-minority status continues its normalization, especially among the younger generations. And as the city transitions from a "natural resource economy to a human resource economy," as Klineberg says, the city continues its march toward the progressive inclusivity that the past few surveys have predicted.
"That's the story of Houston, that those who live here love it here," Klineberg said. "People still say, 'Yuck, why would you want to be there?' ... They still see this as Bush Country. But it's changing."
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