“A truly successful, inclusive and equitable multiethnic society,
positioned for prosperity in today’s global, knowledge-based economy”
As we approach the New Year and a new administration, this may be a good time to reflect on how the city has changed and what the trends foretell. We need to begin with the recognition that Houston is at the forefront of two consequential and irreversible transformations.
The new economy. The days are long gone when a high school graduate could go to work in the oilfields or on a manufacturing assembly line and expect to make a middle-class wage. If you are doing a job that I can train a third-world worker to do, and I pay that third-world worker $15 a day to do the job, I’m not going to pay you $15 an hour. And if you are doing work that I can program a computer to do, I will soon replace your job with an intelligent machine. The coming together of globalization and automation is generating stark disparities in economic opportunities, based primarily on access to quality education and to technical skills beyond a high school diploma. The disappearance of the nation’s low-skilled, well-paying blue-collar jobs is the consequence of inexorable forces that are unlikely to be reversed, no matter how much we might try to renegotiate trade agreements or halt technological advances.
The demographic revolution. Meanwhile, Houston is experiencing the full blast of the epic transformation taking place in the U.S. population, as an earlier generation, predominantly Anglo and now aging, is being replaced by a new generation of Americans, who are a mix of all the world’s ethnicities and religions. In 1980, Harris County was 63 percent Anglo, 20 percent African-American, 16 percent Hispanic and 2 percent Asian. By 2010, it was 41 percent Hispanic, 33 percent Anglo, 18 percent African-American and 8 percent Asian. According to census projections, soon after 2040 fewer than half the population of the entire country will be composed of non-Hispanic whites and the nation’s overall demographics will look very much like Houston today. This is where the American future is going to be worked out.
The trends are particularly clear when age is taken into account. In all of Harris County today, it is only among area residents who are over the age of 63 that Anglos constitute a majority of the population. At each younger age group, the percentage of non-Hispanic whites plummets and the percentage of Hispanics surges, with stable shares across the years of African-Americans and Asians. Of all area residents today who are under the age of twenty, 51 percent are Hispanics, 21 percent are Anglos, 19 percent are African-Americans, and 9 percent are Asians.
The prospects. You can close off America, build a wall to seal the southern border, round up the 10 million people who are here illegally and send them back to wherever you think they belong. None of this will make much difference: The ongoing demographic shift is a done deal. No conceivable force will stop Houston (or Texas or America) from becoming more Hispanic, more Asian, more African-American, and less Anglo as the 21st century unfolds. If the achievement gaps are not significantly reduced, if too many of Houston’s black and Hispanic young people continue to be unprepared to succeed in the new economy, it is difficult to envision a prosperous future for the region as a whole.
On the other hand, if the disparities in life chances can be overcome, Houston will be able to capitalize fully on the advantages of having a young, multicultural and multi-lingual workforce, positioned for competitive success as a major international player and a model for what all of America might yet become in the years ahead. The region’s ability to ensure far more equal access to quality education for all of its residents, from birth through college, from cradle to career, will be as important in establishing the bases for prosperity in the 21st century as dredging the Ship Channel was for Houston’s success in the 20th century.
Hidden by the overheated rhetoric of American politics, many dedicated individuals and enlightened organizations have been working quietly and effectively throughout the Houston region to bridge the educational inequalities and to bring a modicum of beauty and justice to their communities. Area residents are increasingly embracing the new diversity and helping to build something that has never existed before in human history – a truly successful, inclusive and equitable multiethnic society, positioned for prosperity in today’s global, knowledge- based economy.
Although promising initiatives are clearly underway, not yet is Houston doing enough to build the foundations for a prosperous future. The jury is out, but it’s never a good idea to bet against this remarkable city.