HOUSTON – Traffic is the top problem facing the Houston area, attitudes toward undocumented immigrants are improving and there’s growing support for decriminalizing and even legalizing marijuana.
So say the results of the latest Kinder Institute Houston Area Survey, an annual poll of opinions and attitudes of people living around the nation’s fourth largest city.
“We are where the American future is going to be worked out,” said Dr. Stephen Klineberg, the Rice University sociologist behind the study.
Klineberg has conducted this survey annually for the last 33 years, documenting the evolution of attitudes and opinions of people in the Houston area as the metropolis has gone boom and bust and bounced back.
His data has become a touchstone for business leaders, journalists and academics studying the region’s growth, particular its mushrooming ethnic diversity.
Every year, at a luncheon presentation staged before a crowd big enough to fill a hotel ballroom, Klineberg unveils his latest findings with an infectious sense of wonder.
For the last two decades, his survey has gained particular notoriety for documenting the shifting relationships between ethnic groups.
In general, he’s provided encouraging evidence that Houstonians are convinced their diversity is a source of strength rather than rancor. His latest data indicates 68 percent of area residents believe will become “a source of strength for the city,” up from 55 percent in 1996.
One particularly striking data point from this year’s survey exemplifies an ongoing trend toward growing acceptance of gays. In 1991, only 17 percent of the people surveyed believe gays should be allowed to adopt children. That number has gradually grown to 51 percent in 2014.
“It becomes not a moral issue anymore, but ‘Can I deal with a world where not everybody looks like me or has the same proclivities as me?’” Klineberg said. “And we are getting more and more comfortable with this new world of tremendous diversity.”
Although Harris County has sent more convicts to death row than any other county in Texas, which has the most active execution chamber in the nation, this survey indicates Houstonians strongly favor alternatives to capital punishment. The polling shows 68 percent of those surveyed support life imprisonment as an alternative to the death penalty.
Houston may not be ready to legalize marijuana as liberally as Colorado, but attitudes toward the drug are definitely changing. A clear majority – 72 percent – believe people caught with small amounts of drugs should be fined rather than jailed. And about two-thirds of surveyed Houston area residents – 65 percent – support legalizing marijuana for medical use.
“As in the nation as a whole, we’re watching decreasing criminalization, decreasing that sort of tough on crime notion that says we ought to lock ‘em up and throw away the key,” Klineberg said.
Although traffic is the top concern popping out of the survey, Houstonians appear evenly split on how to tackle the issue. Given a choice, 46 percent of those surveyed believed more money should be spent on highways, while 49 percent support spending more on buses and rails.
“What is striking is that, overwhelmingly and clearly, one-half of all Harris County residents say, ‘I would like an alternative to the total dependence on the automobile,’” Klineberg said.