Houston Confronts Racial Disparities as City’s Economy Booms

In a preview of national trends, Houston’s fastest growth is among lower-income, minority households.

Former Houston Mayor Bill White
Aaron M. Sprecher for National Journal
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Janie Boschma
Sept. 3, 2014, 11:23 a.m.

As one of the na­tion’s fast­est-grow­ing cit­ies, Hou­s­ton faces a chal­lenge: how to har­ness the po­ten­tial of its di­ver­si­fy­ing pop­u­la­tion to fuel its grow­ing eco­nomy. It’s a chal­lenge that former May­or Bill White says is a tre­mend­ous op­por­tun­ity.

“If we neg­lect that op­por­tun­ity, if we are con­tent to fall be­hind oth­er coun­tries in edu­ca­tion, we will have wasted that op­por­tun­ity,” White said Wed­nes­day at a Na­tion­al Journ­al event un­der­writ­ten by Mas­ter­Card. “We’ll have a far dif­fer­ent fu­ture.”

Demo­graph­er and Rice Uni­versity pro­fess­or Steve Mur­dock re­ports that Hou­s­ton’s pop­u­la­tion is grow­ing fast­est among low-in­come house­holds. To keep up with the city’s rap­id eco­nom­ic growth over­all, Mur­dock said that Hou­s­ton—and oth­er cit­ies deal­ing with sim­il­ar demo­graph­ic trends—will need to fo­cus on eras­ing the eco­nom­ic and edu­ca­tion­al dis­par­it­ies that per­sist along ra­cial lines.

Des­pite tre­mend­ous growth over­all, the me­di­an in­comes for Hou­s­ton’s His­pan­ic and Afric­an-Amer­ic­an com­munit­ies are still roughly half of the me­di­an in­comes for whites and Asi­ans, ac­cord­ing to 2012 Census Bur­eau data. And Texas ranks 50th in the na­tion in the per­cent­age of res­id­ents who are high school gradu­ates, ac­cord­ing to 2010 Census Bur­eau data. His­pan­ics, who make up about 44 per­cent of Hou­s­ton’s pop­u­la­tion, ac­count for 45 per­cent of those without a high school de­gree.

White said Hou­s­ton is “ab­so­lutely” grap­pling with many of the chal­lenges the rest of the na­tion will face as it con­fronts how to ac­cel­er­ate up­ward mo­bil­ity for all Amer­ic­ans. This fall, minor­ity stu­dents for the first time make up a ma­jor­ity of Amer­ica’s pub­lic-school classes, a trend that Mur­dock says will con­tin­ue na­tion­wide as Amer­ica be­comes in­creas­ingly di­verse.

“It’s a chal­lenge, but when you look back at the his­tory, we can do this as a coun­try,” White said, point­ing out that edu­ca­tion­al at­tain­ment is much high­er among the middle class than it was more than a half-cen­tury ago. “This is a tre­mend­ous op­por­tun­ity for us.”

To close those achieve­ment gaps, both White and Mur­dock said change has to be­gin with­in the edu­ca­tion sys­tem—to make sure that school-age chil­dren are pre­pared for high­er edu­ca­tion when they gradu­ate and that Hou­s­ton’s adults have the skills to match newly cre­ated jobs.

“Wheth­er you look at the fu­ture of Hou­s­ton or you look at the fu­ture of Texas or you look at the fu­ture of the United States, the real­ity is that the fu­ture of each of those is tied to what we now refer to as minor­ity pop­u­la­tions,” Mur­dock said. “How well they do is how well Hou­s­ton is go­ing to do, it’s how well Texas is go­ing to do, it’s how well the U.S. is go­ing to do.”


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