HOUSTON – Just look around you. White people, black people, more and more yellow people, brown people, those who speak English with strange accents (Guadalajara, Brazzaville, Boston). We all seem to get along, unless it’s a discussion over which wine goes with chili. Houston has been called “the most ethnically diversified city in America.” We are also, as a group, getting younger, less religious, more prone to vote Democratic and feel differently from our elected officials about gun control, transgender bathrooms and abortion rights, to name a few.
To find out, let’s go to the source of all things Houston: Dr. Stephen L. Klineberg, Founding Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University who has been dip-sticking Houstonians on their views for – roll of drums — 35 years. No other city that I know of has such a backlog of information on trends, loves, hates and changing thoughts. A prof at Stanford or Yale can’t go back to 1982 and start taking the pulse of Palo Alto or New Haven. So Steve – I can call him Steve because we go back to when he was using an abacus – has amassed this invaluable trove of info. Like our increasing tolerance for Muslims, our growing optimism and we don’t like flying cockroaches (Steve covers everything). We are a confident and optimistic bunch. This year 61 percent of us expressed confidence both in our own finances and the area’s economy, and believe both will continue upwards, a significant increase from previous years.
Houstonians are more and more favoring same-sex marriages and a transgender law. That ordinance was defeated almost two to one last November. A growing majority of us now favor stiffer gun-control laws but relaxing penalties on small-time druggies, and no Trumpian bar-Muslim immigration policies: “The survey respondents decisively reject the calls in the current electoral campaign to restrict immigration from Muslim countries and to turn away refugees seeking asylum.” When it comes to Houstonians’ opinion on prochoice, prolife, it’s prochoice by a growing percentage. Even as our state officials increasingly limit a woman’s access to abortions, 63 percent of the respondents in 2015 said they were opposed to “a law that would make it more difficult for a woman to obtain an abortion,” and 58 percent in 2016 agreed with the strong prochoice statement: “It should be legal for a woman to obtain an abortion if she wants to have one for any reason.” The surveys have also found that over the years this area is becoming both more secular and more aligned with the Democratic Party. The statement: “Government should see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a job.” received a record 76 percent approval.
What else Steve and the Surveyors (sounds like a 70s rock group) found out? The proportion of area residents who said they were “very worried” about crime has remained below 30 percent in the past several surveys, while concerns about air pollution in the Houston area have improved considerably: Almost half of all the participants in the 2008 survey rated the control of air pollution in the Houston area as “poor,” but now only 26 percent feel that way. Our opinion of living in the Houston area has been high in the past and continues to grow. “In sum, the survey participants generally express distinctly positive feelings about living in the Houston area, even as they complain about traffic, pollution, and crime — not to mention the summer heat, the flying cockroaches, and the no mountains!”
A word on how we were quizzed, because accurate surveys are a scientific undertaking, which is why it’s Amateur Hour before many elections when polls are, well, poles apart. Among the changes, more and more of us, particularly young people, don’t even have traditional phones anymore. (I still dial.) Interviews for this year’s survey were taken between Jan. 25 and March 3. They reached (68 percent by landline, 32 percent by cell phone) a scientifically selected representative sample of 808 residents from Harris County. As in the past two years, additional interviews were taken with representative samples of residents in Fort Bend County and in Montgomery County for a total of 1,610 systematic interviews.
Steve explains: “This was to be a one-time survey, conducted as part of a class project with advanced undergraduate sociology majors at Rice in the spring of 1982. Houston was booming: one million people had moved here since 1970, in a city well-known for having imposed the fewest controls on development of any city in the Western world.” So he and his team began measuring the way people were balancing the booming population growth with mounting concerns about traffic, pollution, and crime. Two months later, in May 1982, the oil boom collapsed and Houston lost approximately 100,000 jobs. It was a different town, and another survey was needed, and then in every year after that. (At this point, you are thinking, “Should I expand my kosher deli to include a prayer rug parlor? How do I get the inside skinny?” Visit the Kinder Institute website at: kinder.rice.edu then scroll past the tweets and click on the aerial map.)
OK, why do lawmakers keep getting elected when they don’t reflect our views? One is the gerrymandering of voting districts which often makes winning in the primaries virtually tantamount to getting elected, and primary voters are usually more extreme in their views than the entire electorate. Another reason is the “donor class,” money talks to our lawmakers. Also. our lawmakers are elected by a small minority of white, educated, middle and upper classes. The survey calls this whole situation “the disconnect between public opinion and ‘politically effective opinion.’” Simply put, “politically effective opinion” votes. Public opinion consists of the rest who gripe but don’t vote. So if you want to change the laws, clean the air and open that prayer rug parlor, become politically effective. Voting is free.
Ashby votes at firstname.lastname@example.org