I was delighted to learn Monday, along with other readers, that the Rivard Report is joining KSAT television as partners in a quarterly survey of San Antonio-area residents. 

Christian Archer, the longtime political consultant who is the energy behind the idea, says San Antonio is the only metro area of its size without such a regular poll. I’m not surprised. We were late getting the railroad and for many years were the largest city in the nation without National Public Radio. But as with those essential entities, better late than never. I hope the survey becomes institutionalized and lasts a long time. 

I learned what such a regular community survey could do when I moved to Houston in 2003. As I began to try to learn the city in anticipation of writing a column for the Houston Chronicle, a number of people told me to talk to a Rice University sociologist named Stephen Klineberg

It was no wonder. By that time Klineberg had been conducting a wide-ranging survey of Houstonians for nearly 20 years. Klineberg started the survey in 1982 as a class project to attempt to learn how citizens were responding to the city’s outrageous growth. 

“Two months later an oil bust hit,” Klineberg recalled. “In 18 months, Houston lost 100,000 jobs. We decided we had to do another survey.”

Klineberg started getting asked by banks, oil companies, and civic groups to speak on the survey. He did so in exchange for contributions to Rice to fund the next year’s effort. Then, 10 years ago, the wealthy Kinder family established a $15 million endowment to fund the survey and the Kinder Institute for Urban Research. Now a survey that cost $300 in 1982 costs about $130,000 a year. But its findings are of such interest that more than 1,700 people attended a fundraising luncheon last May at which the results were released, raising $600,000 for the institute. 

The great strength of the Kinder Houston Area Survey is that it not only tells you about what Houstonians are thinking today, but it tells you how they’ve changed – and sometimes changed back – through the ups and downs of that dynamic city. The richness of the historical data and the trends is such that Simon & Schuster will release a book June 2 by Klineberg based on the nearly four decades of research. The title: Prophetic City: Houston on the Cusp of a Changing America.

The survey of 1,000 Houstonians – now half by landline phones and half by cell phones – is taken every spring with the results and a narrative report issued every May. The 2019 report can be found here. Some of the results are sobering. 

One that hit me the hardest: In that flamboyantly wealthy city, fully 39 percent – not far short of half – said they could not come up with $400 if they suffered an emergency.  Some 35 percent said that during the previous year they had trouble paying for housing for and 33 percent had trouble paying for food for themselves or their family. 

And this was during a time of peak employment: The official unemployment rate was only 4.2 percent. The only time it was lower was in 2001 at 4 percent. The highest was 10.1 percent in 1987, with the most recent high at 8.6 percent in 2011.

The survey delves into other fascinating facts. Klineberg notes that the 1960 Census indicated Harris County was 70 percent Anglo and 20 percent African American. The 2016 estimate: Anglos 31 percent, Hispanics 42 percent, African Americans 18 percent, and Asians and others 9 percent. Yet the changes have not led to civil disorder. To the contrary, even Anglo Houstonians want more people who don’t look like them.

At a time when the president is cutting down on the numbers of refugees and other immigrants allowed into the country, 78 percent of native-born Anglos surveyed said they wanted the nation to admit as many or more legal immigrants in the next 10 years as were admitted in the past decade. Among U.S.-born Hispanics it was 88 percent.

The acceptance of diversity was powerfully displayed in the answers of blacks and Anglos to the question of whether they had ever been romantically involved with someone of a different race or ethnicity. Among those over 70 years old, 18 percent of both groups said yes. But the numbers balloon as the population gets younger. Of those under 30, 58 percent of Anglos and 67 percent of blacks said yes. 

The survey also measures what is worrying Houstonians the most at various times. Asked an open-ended question about the city’s most serious problem, crime and the economy were named by as many as 70 percent and 71 percent respectively in past years. For the past six years, traffic has led, rising to 36 percent last year. Crime was named by only 11 percent. San Antonio could use that kind of information.

Archer said the Houston survey is part of what inspired him to work to establish the San Antonio survey, and hopes to build it in similar fashion.

He is aware that his history as a sometimes controversial Democratic campaign operative will engender skepticism among some San Antonians. He has hired Liza Barratachea to work on the quarterly survey full time. She is leaving her job as president and CEO of the San Antonio Hotel and Lodging Association. A Republican, she was previously vice president for governmental affairs at the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce.

“I also have the Rivard Report and KSAT looking over my shoulder,” Archer said, adding that he would love for the survey to become affiliated with a local university as well.

I hope the Bexar Facts/KSAT/Rivard Report Poll succeeds. I do have a few suggestions. One is to survey the entire community, not just registered voters. To really know the community we need to know more than those who are politically active. The Houston question about having access to $400 would be much less revelatory if they only asked registered voters. Over time the survey should help us know the entire community.

I also hope that the survey develops mainly into a broad range of community concerns, attitudes and behaviors, with political questions such as the popularity of the mayor and county judge playing a minor, if interesting, role. 

Finally, maybe they will grow out of the name “Bexar Facts.” It’s a bit too cute. “The San Antonio Survey” is more majestic. If you agree, tell the pollster who calls you. 

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.

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