a kinder houston

New Rice study reveals what Houstonians cared about most before COVID-19

New study reveals what Houstonians cared about most before COVID-19

Houston aerial skyline with traffic on the highway
The survey, taken earlier this year, reveals concern for traffic, immigrants, and climate change. Art Wager/Getty Images

A new survey of Houstonians from early this year reveals a deep sense of mutual trust, empathy, and solidarity — and reflects a much simpler time than the current state of affairs, while exposing serious disparities in life experiences.

The 39th annual 2020 Kinder Houston Area Survey, released each year by Rice University, polled 1,000 people in Harris County who were randomly selected to interview by phone between late January and early March. The study was unveiled during a virtual “lunch out” in place of the annual release luncheon by Stephen Klineberg, founding director of Rice’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research and emeritus professor of sociology, who conducted the survey.

The survey found that residents were most concerned about traffic congestion, flooding, and the economy — much different than the current looming threat of COVID-19.

The economy, traffic, and crime
The Kinder study found that 69 percent of those polled had favorable views of local job opportunities, according to a press release. Traffic was considered the biggest problem — cited by 30 percent of respondents. Merely 11percent said crime was the biggest problem in Houston; 13 percent named the economy, and 11 percent said flooding.

One quarter of survey respondents said they lacked health insurance, and more than one-third had difficulty paying for groceries. The deepening inequalities in access to health care and economic opportunities have had especially dire consequences for Houston’s black and Hispanic communities, according to Klineberg.

Thus, some 61 percent said government should act to reduce income differences, 72 percent favored federal health insurance for all Americans, and 79 percent said the government should make sure everyone who wants to work can find a job. Those numbers are up “significantly” from a decade ago.

Diversity, inclusion, and climate change
Not surprising for the nation’s most diverse city, support for diversity continued to grow across the board. Houstonians clearly favored policies that welcome refugees and expressed more positive feelings in general toward Muslims, undocumented immigrants, and gays and lesbians. Sixty-two percent of respondents in 2020 supported adoption rights for gay parents, up from 49 percent in 2010 and just 17 percent in 1991.

Only 11 percent of Houstonians named flooding as the area's biggest problem, but 77 percent said that more severe storms are a near certainty in the next 10 years. As a result, 65 percent called for prohibiting construction in areas that have repeatedly flooded.

Fifty-one percent said the threat of climate change or global warming is a “very serious problem.” Respondents also blamed humans for climate change as 69 percent of those surveyed said the primary cause of global warming is “human activities” and not “normal climate cycles.” This number is up from 48 percent who blamed human activities in 2011.

Klineberg said it will be particularly interesting to compare the 2020 findings with the 2021 survey when looking ahead to next year.

“We will have a rare opportunity to measure systematically the actual impact on area residents’ attitudes and beliefs of their experience in coping with the health and economic consequences of the pandemic,” he said. “So stay tuned.”