On January 25, 2023, in partnership with Montgomery County Community Foundation, we hosted our first event of the year: The Big Picture | Montgomery County. The room was full with over 75 leaders across various sectors, including Judge Wayne Mack, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 1, Montgomery County, who assembled the Behavioral Health and Suicide Prevention Task Force in 2020. At this event, Understanding Houston shared key data highlighting Montgomery County’s strengths and challenges, and participants were able to react and respond to the data – the findings of this activity are below.
Watch the one-minute recap video, view photos from the event, and review the presentation.
Understanding Montgomery County
The program began with Julie Martineau, President & CEO of Montgomery County Community Foundation and member of Understanding Houston’s Advisory Committee. Julie shared how critical it is to use data in decision-making.
“Data is key to understanding what is happening in our community, where we’ve been, where we are right now, and where we are going. The change makers of Montgomery County are the people who can make an impact and use data to measure whether it is working or not.“Julie Martineau, President & CEO, Montgomery County Community Foundation
Julie explained how Montgomery County Community Foundation works for the present and future well-being of Montgomery County, while Greater Houston Community Foundation works throughout Harris, Montgomery, and Fort Bend counties. Because of this overlap, there is often powerful cross-collaboration between the two foundations.
Julie shared how Understanding Houston is a resource for independent and accessible data that organizations, community and civic leaders, and other residents should use to measure progress and effect change.
Exploring the Trends and Data
Montgomery County has grown significantly, but wages have not kept up
Montgomery County’s population has grown nearly five times in just 40 years, numbering more than 620,000 according to the 2020 Census. Job growth was double the rate of the state and nearly quadruple the rate of the country, while GDP growth over the last two decades consistently outpaced Fort Bend and Harris counties, the state, and the nation.
While GDP grew 82% between 2010 and 2021 in Montgomery County, median household income grew only 7% during the same period. Not only have incomes stagnated, but income inequality has not improved in Montgomery County.
Nearly half of all income in Montgomery County went to 20% of the highest-income households, while just 3% of all income went to the bottom 20% of households. While the income gap between white and Hispanic households decreased by 22% between 2010 and 2021, the gender pay gap increased by 41% for the same period, and Hispanic households still earn about two-thirds of what white households earn.
Montgomery County’s poverty rate has increased recently, contributing to growing inequality. The percentage of children under five living in poverty increased from a decade-low of 12% in 2017 to 24% in 2021.
Households that live above the poverty line but earn less than what it takes to meet basic needs are called ALICE (Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employees) – also known as the working poor. Combining households in poverty and ALICE, nearly two out of every five households in Montgomery County struggle to afford basic necessities like rent, transportation, and food.
Rent has increased and consumes a larger portion of incomes
In Montgomery County, rent increased 22% between 2010 and 2021 compared to an 8% decrease in housing costs for homeowners; the percentage of renters that spend at least 30% of their income on housing is double that of homeowners. Some individuals and families will move farther from city centers to access more affordable housing, which can translate into higher transportation costs.
Montgomery County residents typically spend 53% of their income on housing and transportation alone. On par with L.A. County residents (52%) – a place infamous for its expensive housing market and long commutes.
While a higher percentage of households in Montgomery County are homeowners (75%) compared to the state (63%) and the nation (65%), the homeownership rate in Montgomery County has not seen any improvement over the last decade.
Considering rising rents, homeownership appears to be increasingly out of reach for many first-time homebuyers. This is problematic because home ownership is still one of the most effective ways to build wealth and improve economic mobility.
Where we can afford to live determines more than housing costs
Where we live determines more than just our housing and transportation costs. It also affects our environment, including the air we breathe and the temperature we feel.
In Montgomery County, ozone levels were rated “F” by the American Lung Association – the same rating for Harris County. Montgomery County experienced 523 days of extreme heat, defined as 95°F or higher, during the 2010s decade. This extreme heat was a 231-day increase – the equivalent of nearly two-thirds of a year – compared to the previous decade.
Bad air and extreme heat can lead to premature death and shorter life expectancies as our environment is inextricably linked to our health.
Poor environment and lack of health care access contribute to poor health
Over 90,000 Montgomery County residents under the age of 65 do not have health insurance coverage and do not have adequate access to primary care physicians. There is only one primary care physician for every 1,674 residents compared to one for every 1,319 residents in the U.S. overall.
Clinical guidelines focus on the role of primary healthcare in obesity prevention, and obesity rates in Montgomery County have been up 14 percentage points since 2011. In just a decade, the percentage of residents living with obesity in Montgomery County went from being the lowest in the three-county region to the highest.
Adding to healthcare challenges, Montgomery County has less mental healthcare availability than the state, and Texas ranks last across all states in access to mental health treatment. Montgomery County has only one mental health provider for every 1,069 residents.
Even more concerning, Montgomery County has consistently had the highest suicide rate in the region over the past two decades, and suicidal thoughts for young adults between 18 and 25 in the Houston area have nearly doubled. Research has shown that recent years have been especially difficult for youth and young adults due to social isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and several subsequent traumatic events in recent years.
Educational outcomes suffered from the impacts of the pandemic
The pandemic delayed the opportunity to see the full impact of House Bill 3 (HB3), which was signed into law in 2019. HB3 required all pre-K programs to be full-day, which has added benefits over shorter-day programs. Montgomery County saw a 16-percentage point increase in the rate of pre-K students enrolled in full-day programs between 2018 and 2020, despite still having the lowest rate.
A higher percentage of Montgomery County kindergarteners assessed are considered kinder-ready (57%) compared to Fort Bend (54%) and Harris (45%) counties. However, not all kindergarteners in Texas are assessed equally. Only 31% of Montgomery County kindergarten students were assessed, compared to 96% in Fort Bend County and 90% in Harris County. This rate has been consistently decreasing in Montgomery County compared to a consistent increase in the neighboring counties.
If we look at a group of Montgomery County eighth graders and their educational journey through higher education, many do not ultimately earn a higher education degree or certificate. For every 100 students enrolled in eighth grade during the 2011-12 school year, 80 graduated from high school, 50 enrolled in a Texas higher education institution, and only 22 earned a credential or degree by the time they turned 25. Among economically-disadvantaged students, only 10% earned a degree or certificate compared to 30% of their wealthier peers.
Place-based disparate outcomes
Montgomery County’s economy has grown significantly, but that growth has not translated into growing wealth and prosperity for all residents. Income inequality has not improved, the poverty rate has increased, and nearly two out of five households struggle to afford basic needs. This inequality exacerbates the disparate impacts of rising rents, worsening environment, and low access to healthcare, which play a role in the vastly different outcomes we see for residents. According to research from Opportunity Atlas, one’s childhood zip code can tell a great deal about expected outcomes within each county.
On average, a child from a low-income family who grew up in Conroe earned a household income of $24,000 as an adult, whereas a low-income child from The Woodlands earned $53,000. About 38% of women who grew up in low-income families in a neighborhood in Conroe became teenage moms compared to 5% of low-income women from a neighborhood in The Woodlands.
“[The] community is not fully informed about what is truly happening in rural parts of [the] county. It’s easy in The Woodlands to be isolated from the poverty.“Anonymous Participant
These problems cannot be solved alone. Cross-sector conversation and collaboration are required for Montgomery County to truly be a place where all its residents have the resources and opportunities they need to prosper.
Results from the Group Discussion
Given that many often need more time or capacity to converse and collaborate with those outside their organization, attendees were given time to reflect on how the data may align with what they see in the communities they reside, work in, and serve. Attendees reported that:
- Many Montgomery County households struggle to afford basic needs, and there are disparities between neighborhoods regarding health, access to services, income, and housing.
- There has been an increase in mental health issues among Montgomery County residents, youth and young adults in particular, and it is difficult to access mental healthcare.
- Residents are often underinsured or uninsured, and there is a high use of emergency room services in place of primary/preventative care.
- There is a severe lack of affordable housing.
Realizing that the county-level averages provided in the presentation can mask differences across various communities, attendees were asked how the data may need to align with what they see in the more granular communities they reside, work in, and serve. Attendees reported that:
- Even though the data shows more access to mental health providers than primary care physicians in Montgomery County, mental health seems more difficult to access than primary/preventative care.
- Schools in the south of the County appear to have better student outcomes than the county-level data show.
- Access to health care is not a pressing issue within specific Montgomery County communities, likely due to new hospital facilities.
- They do not see a reduction in the income gap between white and Hispanic households through the community they serve.
Given time limitations, not all quality-of-life indicators from the website were included in the data presented. Some issues attendees noted that were not in the presentation but were pressing challenges in the communities they serve were:
- The lack of resources available to support individuals with autism spectrum disorder and with intellectual or developmental disabilities.
- The lack of resources and services for the growing numbers of older adults (age 65+).
- The income gap between white and Black households.
- Lack of public transportation.
- Food insecurity and food deserts.
Based on the most common themes discussed, mental health and poverty, the rest of the session was dedicated to discussing potential projects and ideas for collaboration around these two issues. Some of the suggestions that came out of the discussion were:
- Partnering with local colleges to better prepare and increase the workforce of mental health practitioners.
- Funding for mental health provider salaries to increase the workforce.
- Establishing Community peer support groups.
- Differentiating between mental illness and mental health and collaborating to utilize alternative services to help with mental health, such as community, exercise, animals, nature, etc.
- Leveraging telehealth to circumvent obstacles such as transportation.
- Increasing the minimum wage to something that accurately reflects the cost of living.
- Creating mixed-income communities to ensure affordable housing is available in high-opportunity areas.
- Providing more mentorship to students, including expanding career and technical education (CTE) opportunities, local trade school resources, and removing barriers for individuals to further their education.