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Checking out some of Secret Millionaire's dubious claims about Houston

News-CMH Staff-Clifford Pugh
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Courtesy of planetgordon.com

When I watched a recent episode of the ABC reality show, Secret Millionaire, set in Houston, I was all set for a heartwarming story of triumph over adversity. In each episode, a millionaire goes undercover to scope out the good work done by various charities in a city, and at the end of the show, hands over a check to the deserving parties. There are lots of hugs and tears amid the schmaltzy music.

It's feel-good TV.

So I was a little taken aback in the opening moments of the show when Curves founders and undercover philanthropists Gary and Diane Heavin flew into Houston and an announcer intoned in his most serious voice, "Tonight a couple who created a health care empire will experience life in one the nation's poorest cities."

A few minutes later, as the music continued to swirl, the announcer said that Houston has "one of the most violent crime rates in the nation."

Even though it was still sunny outside on that early Sunday evening, the tone was so menacing that I got up off the sofa and double bolted my front door.

I'm not naive about crime in Houston and I'm certainly no civic cheerleader, but the city was being presented in such a harsh tone that, for a minute, I thought I was in Detroit.

Throughout the show I scribbled down some of the allegations to check them later for accuracy. It took me longer than I imagined, because when it comes to statistics, it seems like anyone can bend the information to fit their hypothesis. But here's what I found:

Claim: Houston has one of the most violent crime rates in the nation

False. While Houston has its share of crime, it's not among the nation's leaders.

The city ranks No. 45 on the 2010 list of The Most Dangerous Cities in America compiled by Independent publisher CQ Press. The report is based on various crime statistics in 347 metropolitan areas. St. Louis is No. 1, followed by Camden, N.J.

Houston also doesn't show up on a recent U.S. News and World Report list of the 11 Most Dangerous Cities in America, according to an Onboard Informatics analysis of the most recent seven years of FBI crime reporting data. Again, St. Louis is No. 1; Atlanta is No. 2.

Houston is No. 91 in NeighborhoodScout's Top 100 Most Dangerous Cities in the United States. The real estate website ranks Saginaw, Mich., No. 1 most dangerous city in the survey, based on a formula of mathematical algorithms and municipal crime statistics from the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department.

Overall violent crime (murders, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults) was down 12.1 percent in Houston last year, according to Uniform Crime Report figures. And violent crime in the first two months of 2011 is down 7.3 percent compared to the same period last year.

But don't get too complacent. Houston is still less safe than the rest of the state. There's a 1 in 83 chance of being a victim of a violent crime in Houston; in Texas it's about 1 in 172, according to NeighborhoodScout.

Claim: Houston is one of the nation's poorest cities

False. While there are pockets of abject poverty here, Houston doesn't make the list of the 10 poorest cities in America. Detroit is No. 1 with a poverty rate of 32.5 percent in 2009; Buffalo is No. 2 with 29.9 percent.

Claim: One of five Houston residents live in poverty

True. The percentage of Houstonians below the poverty level is 20.8 percent, according to data from the 2010 American Community Survey. Houston is poorer as a whole than residents in Texas (16.8%) and the United States (13.5%).

Claim: The Third Ward is mired in poverty, with a median income of $5,500 a year.

False. Bounded roughly by the Gulf Freeway, Southwest Freeway, Highway 288 and Blodgett/Wheeler streets, the Third Ward has some rough areas, as Secret Millionaire showed. But census figures indicate that the median household income is $16,679; average household income is $27,096; and per capita income $11,742 — certainly not the richest area in town, but not the poorest either.

Claim: A person in Texas on food stamps receives the equivalent of $6.50 per day

True: An individual living alone can get a maximum of $200 a month, or roughly $6.50 a day, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

Claim: Houston has 11,000 restaurants, 500 parks and the Theatre District is second only to New York

False. While Houston is a great culinary town, the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates there are only around 8,000 restaurants in the 10-county region.

But there are more parks —around  700.

As far as the boast about Houston's Theater District having more seats than any place in the United States outside of New York, that's a sore point with me. Back in 2003, I wrote that Chicago and San Francisco have more theater seats than Houston despite the claims of civic boosters. The inflated claim came after leaving out Chicago and San Francisco because those cities don't have a designated theater district.

The idle boast finally petered out. But thanks to the Internet and TV, old claims never die.

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