STEPHEN L. KLINEBERG is a Professor of Sociology at Rice University. In February of 1982, nearly 35 years ago, he and his students began an annual survey that has been tracking the changes in the demographic patterns, economic outlooks, experiences and beliefs of Harris County residents. No other major city in America has this kind of data. We asked the Professor a few questions.
Why did you start this study?
SLK Back in early 1982, Houston was booming. One million people had moved into Harris County between 1970 and 1982. More than 80% of all the jobs in this city were tied into the oil business, and the price of a barrel of oil increased tenfold during the 1970s. The city was booming, while the rest of the country was experiencing the “stagflating 70s.” Houston was also world famous for having imposed the fewest controls on development of any city in the western world, with no zoning, low taxe and minimum regulations. So we did a one-time survey to ask a representative sample of Harris County residents how they were balancing the city’s growing affluence with mounting concerns about the costs of that growth, in the form of pollution, traffic and crime. Two months later, in May of 1982, the oil boom collapsed. By the end of 1983, 100,000 jobs were lost. So we thought we’d better do the survey again and then in every year after that. February 2016 will be the 35th year of these annual studies.
Why is this sort of research important?
SLK I get unfairly credited with having planned to do a long-term research project of this sort. As it turns out no other city has been tracked in this way, where we can ask identical questions over the years and watch as people answer the questions differently. Few other cities more clearly exemplify the trends that are rapidly refashioning the social and political landscape across the country. In about 25 years, all of America will look like Houston looks today. How the city navigates these changes will have enormous significance not just for the Houston future but for the American future. This is where the American future is going to be worked out. It’s what makes this city so interesting and so consequential.
The census provides the basic information about the ongoing demographic transformations. But what the census can’t tell you is how people are responding to these remarkable changes. For example, we are able to show in the surveys that the most powerful predictor among Anglos of comfort with diversity, of support for immigration – the single most powerful predictor is age. Younger Anglos are far more comfortable with all of these changes; older Anglos are struggling with a whole new world that is so dramatically different from the environment they grew up in. The world of the 1960s and 70s was very different from the world of the 1990s and 2000s.
What has been the most significant change noted in the last 35 years?
SLK We are in the midst of two converging revolutions that have made the 21st centur y a different place than most people thought it was going to be 25 and 30 years ago:
1. A new economy where the well-paying, low-skilled blue collar jobs have disappeared, an economy of growing disparities based above all on access to quality education and technical skills.
2. An ongoing demographic revolution – as an earlier generation, predominantly Anglo and now aging, is being replaced by a new generation of Americans, composed largely of immigrants and their children, who are a mix of all the world’s ethnicities.
It’s how those remarkable trends are playing out and how we Houstonians, at the forefront of the changes, are dealing with them, that are so critical. Will we make the investments in education that these times demand? Can we build a truly successful, inclusive, equitable and united multi-ethnic society? All of us are now minorities, all of us are called on to work together to build the new America of the 21st century, the first “universal nation,” a microcosm of all the peoples of the world.
And has the city adapted any of the findings yet?
SLK People often tell me how useful these surveys are to them. A lot has changed in a very short amount of time, and Houston has a lot to be proud of. We have been dealing with these changes better than most other cities. The surveys show decreasing antagonism toward immigration over the years and growing acceptance of the new diversity. The differences by age among Anglos are an important reminder of how each generation takes for granted the world as it existed when they were growing up. A fundamental law of human nature says that what I am familiar with feels right and natural, but what I am unfamiliar with feels unnatural and somehow not quite right. A world that feels totally natural to young people still feels strange to older folks. This is part of what it means to be living in a time of such extraordinary change and in a city that is in the vanguard of the new America.
By Carla Valencia de Martinez