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5 Improvements to Understanding Houston

Since its launch in 2019, we have been asking how we can improve Understanding Houston — not only the site, but also the overall initiative: How can the site be easier to navigate? How can the site help you quickly find what you are looking for? How can our events be more engaging or useful? What else do you want to see from Understanding Houston?

In search of answers, we conducted three Data Dives, two Visioning Labs, dozens of post-event evaluations, hundreds of conversations, and a biennial survey.

Through this discovery, we heard that the site was not intuitive to navigate; few people were aware of our blog page; the site was not fully accessible; and users wanted more background and context with which to interpret the data but also fewer indicators. (We also heard that Understanding Houston presents data in compelling, interactive visuals; provides analysis in clear, accessible language, and is aesthetically pleasing.)

Throughout 2023 we have been working with our incredible partner, Baal & Spots, to build and enhance UnderstandingHouston.org, and we are thrilled to finally reveal the refreshed website!

Here are five ways Understanding Houston has improved, informed by your feedback and suggestions.

1. Popups and Navigation

Each time you open Understanding Houston in a new browser, little popups will take you on a quick tour of the homepage (if you do not want to see them again, select the appropriate box). The popups will guide you through the homepage, the new navigation, the new “Explore the Data” button, the blog page, and more.

Additionally, the navigation headers have been renamed and reordered for clarity. The “Explore the Data” button now appears first. We have also made it easier to learn who we are, what we do, and how to get involved by registering for events or subscribing to the newsletter. Finally, the blog page is now called “Articles & Reports,” the search bar is more prominent, and it is easier to find information on upcoming and past events, including presentations and photos through drop-down menus.

2. Explore the Data

We are proud to host a new Explore the Data page that presents all topics and subtopics in one place for convenience. From this page, simply click on the  cover photo or topic name to visit one of the nine topic-level pages and read the summary report. Users can also view all subtopics to directly find what you are looking for or to get a sense of how the data are organized. In this update, we refined the 300+ indicators to about 200 based on feedback and use and combined and refined subtopic pages — the result of which can be seen in this one high-level page.

3. Enhanced Blog

The blog page formerly known as “Community Voices” has been renamed “Articles & Reports.” The articles can be filtered by one of the nine topics by selecting the issue in the drop-down menu. With over 80 articles to choose from, we know there is a lot to explore. To help focus, the top five most read articles will appear in a carousel format, with all articles in reverse chronological order below, denoted by the “Most Recent” header. Scroll down the page to load more articles or use the search tool in the upper right corner to find one you are looking for.

4. Improved Accessibility

We are proud to share that Understanding Houston is more accessible now. We have tweaked our color combinations and fonts to ensure that all users can fully enjoy and utilize the website. Screen readers can read each page’s content, including charts, and we are working to complete adding alt text to all relevant images.

5. More background, context and analysis

You asked for more historical background, situational context, and deeper analysis from Understanding Houston, and we aimed to deliver! Throughout the site you will find deeper dives and more holistic analysis of outcomes across indicator, and we disaggregated more data by race/ethnicity, gender, and income where possible. For example, we took a deep dive into the racial characteristics of poverty, analyzed housing cost trends before and after the pandemic, dissected disparate outcomes in maternal and child health, and more.

Approaching our Fifth Anniversary

We have made significant updates to the website, but many parts of the site you love have not changed. You have always been able to interact with the charts on the website and download them for use. Users can still change views by filtering the data in the legend or selecting different buttons or drop-downs in the top right corners. And, you can still jump to the indicator of interest by selecting it under “The Data” header on the left of each subtopic page.

As we move toward our fifth anniversary in November 2024, we will continue to improve, following your suggestions and input. Understanding Houston’s second biennial Impact Survey is now live! We encourage all users and visitors to complete the 10-minute survey for a chance to win a $1,000 donation to your favorite  local nonprofit. We will continue to update the site with the most recent data and to convey the initiative’s next phase of work.

Once again, we extend our deepest gratitude to and appreciation for Baal & Spots who has been an incredibly talented and supportive partner to us since Understanding Houston’s inception.

Happy Exploring!

Honoring Veterans: Shaping Our Future by Remembering Our Heroes

Every November 11th, cities, towns, and communities across our country come together to pay tribute to the brave men and women who have served in the armed forces. Veterans Day is a solemn occasion, a day when we pause to reflect on the sacrifices made by our military personnel and express our gratitude for their unwavering dedication to protecting our freedoms.

At its core, Veterans Day is a reminder of the profound debt of gratitude we owe to those who have served in our country’s defense. It’s a day to acknowledge the immense sacrifices that veterans have made for the greater good. These sacrifices extend far beyond the battlefields; they encompass time spent away from loved ones, physical and mental challenges, and the burden of carrying the responsibility for the nation’s security.

The essence of Veterans Day

One of the most important aspects of Veterans Day is the opportunity it provides for Americans to connect with veterans and gain a deeper understanding of their experiences. Through conversations, events, and ceremonies, Americans can hear firsthand accounts of the challenges veterans faced and the resilience displayed in the vein of defending the greatest country in the world. These stories remind us that freedom is not free; it has been safeguarded through the courage and valor of our veterans.

Nearly 220,000 veterans live in Houston’s three-county region. About 7% of Montgomery County’ population are veterans — the largest proportion of veterans in the region, compared to 4% in Fort Bend and Harris counties. On average, men, Black, and white people are most likely to be veterans.

Veterans Day also serves as a reminder that even after a soldier, marine or airman takes off the uniform there are a litany of ongoing challenges that veterans may encounter upon returning to civilian life. Transitioning from military service to civilian life can be daunting, and many veterans face difficulties such as finding employment, accessing healthcare, or coping with post-traumatic stress.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 29% of veterans who served in Operation Enduring Freedom or Operation Iraqi Freedom will experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some point in life, though these statistics are likely underreported since many returning veterans may not report PTSD symptoms or may not be screened at all. By recognizing and supporting our veterans, we can work together to address these complex challenges and ensure Veterans receive the care and opportunities they deserve.

Veterans Day is also an opportunity to extend our gratitude and support to the families who play an integral role in supporting and encouraging our military community. It is important to remember that no veteran serves alone. Spouses, children, and parents of veterans have also made sacrifices — enduring long deployments and the anxiety of worrying about their loved one’s safety — and they often have to endure PTSD or other mental health battles alongside their loved one.

Yet, despite these challenges, there is also great honor in their sacrifice. Being in the army taught me that a kid from a small town who is willing to raise his hand and take the oath to defend and protect our country would not only learn about military tactics, see the world, and be a part of experiences that are not possible as a civilian, but that anything is possible if you believe in yourself. The leadership, problem-solving skills, resilience, and team-building skills I gained through my service were life-changing. There is no doubt that the military is not for everyone, and the voluntary military system is a great one but, in FY 2022 the Army missed its recruiting goal by 25% (~15,000 active-duty soldiers), and as a society, we should carry some of the responsibility for this staggering number.

A society united in respect

Imagine a country in which veterans were put on a pedestal like professional athletes or looked up to and idolized like movie stars and musicians. Imagine what might happen to a 16 or 17-year-old who is trying to figure out what to do when she turns 18, so she looks to Brig. Gen. Smith in the Space Force as a hero and decides on a career as an Intelligence Analyst. Imagine a kid who is about to graduate high school but has no idea what his purpose in life is but decides to don the uniform of this country. Imagine not only what these choices would do for those individuals but also what might happen if the men and women of our armed forces were viewed as “influencers” and how that might re-center our societal priorities to “Be all you can be.”

While I am an optimist at heart, even I know a complete re-prioritization of values is nothing that can happen overnight, and a societal shift of putting the men and women who bravely defend our way of life in the same day-to-day conversations as celebrities and professional athletes is unlikely.

But this is H-Town. As the fourth largest city in America, Houston, we may have a problem, but we have influence. We have the ability to make changes so that Veterans Day can extend beyond November 11th.

This does not mean more parades or showering veterans with gifts or handouts, frankly most veterans (me included) would be adamantly opposed to this type of thing. What I’m talking about is making a conscious effort to learn about what our men and women in uniform do for this country and share that knowledge into normal day-to-day conversations (and social media posts!) with our friends, family members, work colleagues, and children. This is a powerful way in which we can all act individually and collectively to shape the future and honor the sacrifices made by our nation’s veterans and active-duty service members.

Leading by example

So, on this Veterans Day, attend the parades, thank those veterans you know for their service, and come together in your community to recognize the courage, sacrifice, and dedication of our veterans. But as Houstonians, let us make a commitment to find our own individual ways to elevate the sacrifices made for this country into the other 364 days of the year. This is Space City — anything is possible.

A Closer Look at Financial Hardship in the Houston Region

There is more to economic security than living above the poverty line.

Across Greater Houston, more than a million households struggle to make financial ends meet.  Among those households across Fort Bend, Harris and Montgomery counties, about 306,000 live below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). However, this common economic measure only describes part of the economic reality in our community. The Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) data presents a more accurate picture of the economic reality across our community, especially regarding the number of households that are economically challenged.

What is ALICE?

According to the 2023 ALICE report for Texas by United For ALICE, 700,000 households across Fort Bend, Harris and Montgomery counties, or 31%, experienced ALICE in 2021 – they worked hard but couldn’t afford the basic necessities of life. The ALICE Report draws attention to the huge but often hidden segment of our community that is struggling to make ends meet, beyond those living on incomes below the FPL.

The ALICE data takes into consideration the ALICE Survival Budget, which is a bare-bones, real-world, conservative estimate for what it takes to make ends meet. It includes actual costs, such as housing, utilities, child care, food, transportation, health care, and a low-cost smartphone, and it changes based on the county of residence and size and composition of the household. Noticeably missing from the ALICE Survival Budget is the ability to save for emergencies or a rainy day. Individuals and families experiencing ALICE often feel the stress of living paycheck to paycheck and are one emergency away from financial hardship.

The ALICE Survival Budget highlights how a single adult in Harris County, for example, needed an annual income of $32,328 to afford the basics in 2021, while a family of three (one adult with one preschooler and one school-aged child) needed $61,548. In contrast, the FPL for a single adult was $14,583 and for a family of three was $24,860 in 2023 – a 121% and 148% difference, respectively. The individuals and families who earn above FPL but still can’t afford everything are often not eligible for assistance programs, public benefits, and other supports.

Picture source: an itemized budget, along with monthly and annual totals and the hourly wage needed to support the budget based in Harris County.
Comparison of itemized budgets for one adult versus one adult with a school-aged child plus pre-schooler in Harris County.

Households experiencing ALICE typically spend more than half of their income on housing and transportation, leaving less money for other essentials. The local cost of rent represents the greatest expense for a family of three in Harris County, averaging $1,208 per month. The same size family in Fort Bend would need $1,574 per month for housing and $1,334 in Montgomery County. The average monthly cost of transportation was $364 for the same size family across all three counties.

You can use the ALICE Survival Budget calculator to explore the Survival Budget for different household combinations.

Who is ALICE?

The ALICE data also reveals disparities and challenges faced by different groups of households in our community. By race and ethnicity, 43% of Black and 45% of Hispanic households were experiencing ALICE across Fort Bend, Harris, and Montgomery counties in 2021, compared to 25% of white households.

By age of head of household, those with a head of household under 25 years old or over 65 years old had the highest rates of financial hardship, with 40% and 42% experiencing ALICE respectively across the three counties.

By household composition, single-parent families with children were more likely to experience ALICE than married-parent households or single/cohabiting households without children. Single-female-headed households with children experience ALICE at 35% and single-male headed households with children experience ALICE at 45% across Fort Bend, Harris and Montgomery counties.

Screenshot of ALICE 2021 map for Greater Houston

We see the number of those experiencing ALICE growing across communities. You can dive into the ZIP Code level data for prevalence of those experiencing ALICE and living below the FPL. For example, when reviewing ZIP code level data, 77417 in Fort Bend County has 6,923 households experiencing ALICE, an increase of nearly 5% since 2018. In Montgomery County, zip code 77306 has 2,139 households experiencing ALICE, up 14% from 2018.

Where we live matters, impacting your financial stability, health, life expectancy, exposure to violence, access to resources, and housing. Yet individuals and families experiencing ALICE — whether they are homeowners or renters —are frequently forced to make difficult choices or sacrifices in other areas of their lives.

What’s important about being able to look at the ALICE data from this lens is that households of all ages, genders, races, and ethnicities, living in rural, urban, and suburban areas, are impacted by financial hardship.

ALICE and COVID

What’s important about being able to look at the ALICE data from this lens is that households of all ages, genders, races, and ethnicities, living in rural, urban, and suburban areas, are impacted by financial hardship. The ALICE data shows that financial hardship is not a temporary or isolated problem, but a persistent and widespread issue that affects households across our community. It also shows that the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the situation for many ALICE households. They faced employment shifts, health struggles, and disruption to day-to-day life activities.

Throughout 2020 and 2021, there were various temporary pandemic supports that provided a much-needed cushion for these struggling households, such as a range of direct assistance programs, including pandemic-specific unemployment insurance, economic impact payments, expanded Child Tax Credit (CTC) and Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit (CDCTC), and emergency rental assistance. The temporary relief mitigated the pandemic’s negative financial impact on ALICE households, avoiding what could have been a deeper economic crisis overall.

When combining the households that are living below the federal poverty level and experiencing ALICE, over a million households are forced to make difficult choices and risky tradeoffs every day across our area. This requires them to make tough choices, often forgoing basic necessities such as healthy food and health care which is why sufficient incomes matter for everyone.

How to Use ALICE Data

The ALICE data also highlights the opportunities and solutions that can help households achieve financial stability and well-being. United Way of Greater Houston is using the ALICE data to guide the Integrated Client Journey, which consists of a network of over 100 funded nonprofit partners that coordinate services to support those that identify as ALICE. The vision is that these organizations work together to help individuals and families to reach financial stability, ensuring that individuals and families in our community have the opportunity to thrive and to prosper.

We invite other service providers and community stakeholders to explore and use this data to gain a deeper understanding of the realities many of our neighbors are facing and how we as a community can lift up those struggling to make ends meet. To learn more about ALICE data visit https://unitedwayhouston.org/what-we-do/employed-but-in-need/.

Fort Bend County Health and Human Services’ Journey toward a Community Health Assessment

Banner photo: Carrie Rai, FBCHHS Performance and Innovation Specialist

This article is the first of a two-part series that describes the community engagement plan and process to create Fort Bend County’s first Community Health Assessment and Health Improvement Plan since 2007.

In the summer of 2022, Fort Bend County Health & Human Services (FBCHHS) completed its first Community Health Assessment (CHA) in 15 years. The Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) defines a CHA as “an assessment that identifies key health needs and issues through systematic, comprehensive data collection and analysis. The ultimate goal of a community health assessment is to develop strategies to address the community’s health needs and identified issues.”  

The Process

FBCHHS followed the Association for Community Health Improvement Community Health Assessment Toolkit to guide the CHA process.

The CHA process was a collaborative effort, led by FBCHHS. The process of collaboration and community engagement began with identifying stakeholders from a variety of sectors within the community and the creation of the CHA Committee.

The committee was comprised of FBCHHS divisions and leadership and division representatives alongside community stakeholders representing primary health care, mental health, hospitals, private philanthropy, local government, non-profits, the faith community, academia, transportation, and public safety.

The committee was integral in guiding the process of the CHA, providing input for and reviewing the methodology, data, analysis, as well as determining the types of secondary data to collect, and what questions to ask in the survey and the key informant interviews. The CHA committee also made suggestions about who to interview and how to administer the survey.

More than 150 Fort Bend County leaders, residents, stakeholders and health champions and over 70 organizations attended the community input sessions throughout the CHA and community health improvement planning process. Additionally, FBCHHS conducted 25 key informant interviews and administered 845 surveys. These activities provided a platform for diverse agencies, community members and perspectives to be shared to generate inclusive, cohesive and attainable health improvement goals.

Image of a room with people around circular tables. The table in focus has four women engaged in conversation.
Event photo from The Big Picture – Fort Bend County

Community Health Priorities 

FBCHHS used the Kaiser Permanente National Community Benefit decision-making criteria for the identification and prioritization of health needs. Quantitative data was compared against the following benchmarks: the state of Texas, U.S. as a whole or the top 10% performing U.S. counties. A health issue was identified when there was poor performance across the comparative benchmarks. Health issues were also identified through thematic analysis of qualitative data from input sessions and Key Informant interviews. Community health need priorities were determined when the same health issue was identified in both the quantitative and qualitative data.

According to the 2022 County Health Rankings, Fort Bend County ranks fourth in the state for best overall health outcomes. However, the CHA data illustrates areas for improvement among vulnerable populations that have disproportionate health outcomes. Black and Hispanic populations, people without health insurance, and people with low-income have poorer health outcomes. These groups struggle to access services, contributing to health disparities.

Source: Kaiser Permanente National Community Benefit, August 2015

While there are several areas where Fort Bend County could see improvement, residents, community leaders and stakeholders identified five top community health priorities.

Mental Health

Like physical health, mental health is critical to our overall well-being. Good mental health affects our thoughts and behaviors, helps us maintain fulfilling relationships, enables us to cope with change and adversity, and ultimately supports our contributions to society. Mental health is also closely connected with physical health. Poor mental health may lead to behaviors that harm physical health (e.g., alcohol and other substance use, lack of exercise, etc.), and having poor physical health can negatively affect our mental health. About one in four survey respondents stated that their mental health was not good for one to five days out of the past 30, and 46% said mental health has been a problem in their household.

About one in seven survey respondents stated that there was a time in the past year that someone in their family needed mental health services but couldn’t receive them — either because they couldn’t afford to pay (34%) or the wait times were too long (27%). Overall, one-third indicated that mental health services are missing in the community. The data from surveys reflect mental health access challenges we see in Fort Bend, specifically. Within Houston’s three-county region, Fort Bend has the highest ratio of residents to mental health care providers, though there has been improvement since 2017.

Housing

Affordable, safe, and stable housing is a basic need, and unsafe or unstable housing threatens our health, well-being, and economic security. At the same time, the cost of housing is the single largest expense for most households, and it has become increasingly unaffordable in recent years. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development considers affordable housing as not more than 30% of income. If a household spends 30% or more of their income on housing costs, they are “housing cost burdened.” Households that spend 50% or more of their income on housing costs are “severely cost-burdened.”

Renters are much more likely to be burdened by housing costs than homeowners. In 2021, more than 45% of renters were cost-burdened compared to 25% of homeowners; and 22% of renters were severely cost-burdened compared to 11% of homeowners. While the share of homeowners who are cost burdened has fallen since 2010, renters are more likely to be cost burdened now than a decade ago. Additionally, a person would need to work 3.2 full-time jobs at minimum wage to afford a two-bedroom rental property at Fair Market Rent in Fort Bend County. Fort Bend County’s population has already increased 41% over the last decade and is expected to increase an additional 15% to nearly 1 million by 2030, according to the Texas Demographic Center’s recent projections. Given these data, it is not surprising that one-third of survey respondents indicated affordable housing is missing in Fort Bend and more than half of Key Informant interviewees cited the issue as their top concern.

Obesity

Obesity, defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more, is a complex health condition affecting both adults and children. Obesity increases the risk for health conditions such as coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, hypertension, and more. Obesity is found to take more years of life than diabetes, tobacco use, hypertension, or high cholesterol.

Nearly 30% of adults in Fort Bend County are classified as obese, according to County Health Rankings, and the disease was the top health issue identified among survey respondents. While not the only related triggers, poor eating habits and lack of exercise can contribute to obesity. About 40% of survey respondents are concerned with poor eating habits and 39% are concerned with a lack of exercise.

Cardiovascular Diseases

Heart disease was the fifth most-cited health issue by survey respondents and Key Informants with more than one in seven identifying the diseases as a health concern. White and Black residents of Fort Bend die from heart disease at significantly higher rates than Asian and Hispanic residents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s WONDER data tool.

The National Center for Health Statistics shows that three out of 10 deaths in Fort Bend County are attributed to heart disease and stroke. However, we know that many patients with heart disease also suffer from other chronic conditions, including lower respiratory diseases, diabetes, and kidney diseases, which comprised an additional 6% of deaths in 2020.

Maternal Health/Prenatal Care

Babies who are born in good health and who continue to thrive with positive experiences, tend to grow into healthy and productive adults who sustain our population and contribute to our economic vitality. Of course, a newborn’s health depends not only on the mother’s health during gestation but also her state of health before pregnancy. Early prenatal care is defined as pregnancy-related care beginning in the first trimester (1-3 months) and has been viewed as a strategy to improve pregnancy outcomes for more than a century.

In 2020, the rate of women who receive late (after the first trimester) or no prenatal care in Fort Bend County (30%) is three times that in Texas (10%) and five times the rate in the U.S. overall (6%). Between 2019 and 2020, Fort Bend saw an unprecedented 10-percentage-point decline in the proportion of women who received early prenatal care — a drop we didn’t see in neighboring counties despite the pandemic. Black and Latino women in Fort Bend had the lowest rates of early prenatal care, which is not surprising because a lack of health insurance is the largest contributor to women delaying or not accessing prenatal care, and women in those groups have the lowest rates of health insurance coverage.

Community Mobilization for Change

Through the CHA organizations, community members, and other stakeholders are able to evaluate the health of communities, factors that contribute to health challenges in Fort Bend County, existing community assets and resources to improve the community’s health can also be identified. The Community Health Improvement Plan (CHIP) contributes to the advancing of strategies to shorten the gap to accessing services, resources, and disparities faced with the top five community health priorities. The CHIP brings focus to the health issues identified in the CHA and allows communities, municipalities, jurisdictions, and community partners to actively collaborate and create a united plan to improve the health of Fort Bend County.

Healthy communities do not happen on their own, but through the efforts of community mobilization, local government support and key stakeholder contributions. Key stakeholders include local elected officials, hospital partners, FQHCs, foundations, non-profits, religious organizations, school districts, HOAs and many others. The shared goal is always to increase the quality of health across Fort Bend County. 

We invite you to join us in reducing the gap for accessing services and or providing resources for the community members to meet the needs identified from the top five health priorities. FBCHHS Office of Communications, Education and Engagement is available to present to your organization or business about the CHIP to bring further awareness on how your organization or business can aid the community members of Fort Bend County.

Please email hhsoutreach@fbctx.gov to request a presentation.

Please access the full Community Health Assessment and Community Health Improvement Plan at http://www.fbctx.gov/cha!

Key Insights from The Big Picture | Montgomery County

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.  

Nearly 1 in 5 children under the age of five in Montgomery County lives in poverty.

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.

One out of three adults in Montgomery County are living with obesity.

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:

Mental Health

  • 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.

Poverty

  • 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.

Key Insights from The Big Picture | Fort Bend County

On October 6, 2022, Fort Bend County residents convened at Long Acres Ranch in Richmond, TX, to learn, engage, and explore ways to solve some of the county’s most significant challenges. At this event, Understanding Houston shared key data highlighting Fort Bend County’s strengths and challenges. Guests also heard from representatives from Fort Bend County Health & Human Services (FBCHHS) about significant findings from their recent Community Health Assessment. This event was unique as it was the first time Understanding Houston partnered with a county department for a presentation.

Fort Bend County Health & Human Services Team

Painting the Picture

The program began with Steve Maislin, President and CEO of Greater Houston Community Foundation, who shared an overview of the Foundation’s work and how it was established in 1995 to inspire and create meaningful change with our donors and for our community. In addition to being the Houston region’s hub for all charitable solutions, the Foundation is well-positioned to help its donors identify and invest in a validated network of agency partners throughout the Greater Houston region.

The next speaker was Dr. Jacquelyn Johnson-Minter, Director of FBCHHS. Dr. Minter shared how FBCHHS is the principal agency for protecting the health of Fort Bend County residents and providing essential human services. Dr. Minter emphasized the importance of the cross-collaboration needed for their ongoing response in addition to the emergency relief they provide during times of disaster. She conveyed that no one person or entity can solve the problems outlined in the forthcoming presentation alone, and this event was designed to help share the data needed to ignite cross-sector collaboration to address significant regional challenges.

Guests also heard from Rocaille Roberts, Program Officer at The George Foundation, where she helps to oversee how The George Foundation partners with the community to impact Fort Bend County and its residents positively. She encouraged everyone in the room, in their professional and personal life, to be open-minded about what resources we can all leverage to make an impact, as we all need to collectively think outside the box. She also shared how data helps their foundation make strategic choices about what issue areas to prioritize.

Sharing the Data

Population Growth

This leads us to the data shared by representatives from Understanding Houston. First, Nadia Valliani, Director of Community Philanthropy, began by grounding the conversation in the county’s population growth and change over time. Fort Bend County’s population has grown over 500% in the last 40 years.

Fort Bend County’s population has grown over 500% in the last 40 years.

Along with large population growth, there has also been a dramatic change in who makes up Fort Bend’s population. International migration is a large contributor to Fort Bend’s population growth, with one out of three residents being foreign-born in 2021, the highest rate in the three-county region, which includes Harris and Montgomery counties. Additionally, Fort Bend’s population has shifted from majority-white to an almost completely equal distribution of each major racial/ethnic group. Valliani shared how population growth is a significant strength as it helps to expand the economy and workforce. However, if not planned for properly, population growth can put stress on our infrastructure and environment. While the region’s diversity is a point of pride as it is an asset and opportunity to lead the country, diversity does not automatically mean inclusivity.

Fort Bend’s population has shifted from majority-white to an almost completely equal distribution of each major racial/ethnic group

The data shows that economic opportunity and prosperity are not shared among all residents in Fort Bend County. While the median household income in Fort Bend County, at $97,210, is higher than in Texas and the U.S., Fort Bend has larger income disparities by race/ethnicity. The income gap between white and Hispanic households in Fort Bend County was nearly $42,000 in 2019, according to data from the Federal Reserve. In Fort Bend County, income has grown by about 7% in the past decade compared to 15% for the nation and 21% for Texas. Fortunately, fewer people are living in poverty, but there are racial/ethnic disparities here as well. About one in 10 Black and one in 14 Hispanic residents in Fort Bend live in poverty compared to one in 20 white residents, according to data from the 2019 American Community Survey.

Fort Bend County is one of the most diverse and wealthy counties in the nation, but wealth has not grown meaningfully for all. This has wide-ranging implications contributing to gaps in housing affordability and health outcomes.

Residential Infrastructure and Health

Next, we heard from Chelsea Cheung, Senior Data and Learning Analyst. Cheung shared how the rising cost of housing has disproportionately impacted renters. She revealed how homeownership can be critical to wealth creation and upward mobility, as that wealth can be passed on to future generations. A higher percentage of Fort Bend County residents are homeowners compared to the state and nation; and while homeownership disparities exist by race and ethnicity in Fort Bend County, the disparities are smaller when compared to Texas and the U.S. However, median home values rose 62% between 2010 and 2019 in Fort Bend County, nearly double the national increase of 34%. For the same time period, the median monthly costs for homeowners with a mortgage increased by 4% compared to a 21% increase for renters. In Fort Bend County, nearly one in five renters spend more than half of their income on housing alone. For Fort Bend renters with stagnant wages who face soaring rents, the cost of achieving the American dream has increasingly become practically unachievable.

In Fort Bend County, nearly one in five renters spend more than half of their income on housing alone.

Cheung then addressed how where we live affects our environment and, by extension, our health and the health services available. Unfortunately, Texas has had the highest percentage of residents without health insurance in the United States for the last decade. In 2019, about 41,000 residents between the ages of 19 and 64 in Fort Bend County were uninsured, with one-third of Hispanic adults younger than 65 in Fort Bend being uninsured. In 2020, half of all deaths in Fort Bend were caused by heart disease, cancer, and COVID-19. In addition, in 2019, over 25% of Fort Bend County residents 18 and older reported no leisure-time physical activity in the past month, and over 15% rated their health as poor or fair. With more than a quarter of adult residents in Fort Bend County living with obesity, it is time to look at increasing access to and uptake of healthier options for residents.

Cheung then spoke about mental health and prenatal care. In Fort Bend County, the number of pregnant women who received early prenatal care declined 10 percentage points in just one year between 2020 and 2019, a decline not seen in Harris or Montgomery counties. In addition, Fort Bend County has the highest ratio of residents to mental health care providers in our three-county region and compared to the state and nation. This shortage of mental health providers is especially problematic because over one in 10 Fort Bend residents reported experiencing at least two weeks of poor mental health within a one-month period in 2019. 

Identifying Community Priorities

The final speaker was Carrie Rai, Performance and Innovation Specialist from FBCHHS, who shared an overview of their recent Community Health Assessment. This Community Health Assessment is the first in Fort Bend County in 15 years. In addition to using data from various sources like Understanding Houston and local hospitals, they also collected their own data by conducting 25 key informant interviews and distributing 845 surveys to community residents.  

Through their research, FBCHHS collected data on health outcomes related to health care, health behavior, social and community factors, and the physical and built environment. While they learned that Fort Bend County performs well in several areas, there were a few areas that were flagged as community priorities, including mental health, obesity, heart disease, housing affordability, and prenatal care access.

Mental Health 

Rai shared that 37% of survey respondents had at least one day of poor mental health in the past month, and 46% indicated that mental health had been a problem within their households this past year. She also shared that suicide rates in Fort Bend County vary by race and ethnicity, with the highest rates of suicide being in the white population. These high rates of poor mental health are complicated by the shortage of mental health providers in Fort Bend County, as there is only one mental health provider for every 1,210 residents compared to a ratio of one mental health provider for every 760 Texans. Their data also showed that 14% of respondents needed mental health services but did not receive them. When asked why they did not receive mental health services, 34% said they could not afford to, and 27% said it took too long to receive services.  

Obesity

While Fort Bend County has lower obesity rates than other counties in the region, it is still a top health issue, as nearly 30% of Fort Bend County residents are obese. In addition, results from the Community Health Assessment indicated that 40% of survey respondents were concerned with poor eating habits while 39% were concerned with lack of exercise. Only 8% of survey respondents are consuming enough fruits and vegetables, and 60% are not getting enough exercise. 

Heart Disease

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in Fort Bend County. Breaking it down by race/ethnicity, according to CDC WONDER, the Black or African American and white populations in Fort Bend County had the highest rates of deaths related to heart disease in 2020. Heart Disease was the fifth most cited health issue by survey respondents and key informants.  

Housing Affordability

Housing in Fort Bend County is another area of focus due to affordability challenges. In 2022, County Health Rankings found that the Fair Market Rent (FMR) is $1,208 in Fort Bend County, whereas, across Texas, the average FMR is $1,172. In addition, 32% of survey respondents and 55% of key informants said that affordable housing is a resource/service that is missing in Fort Bend County. 

Prenatal Care Access 

The last priority issue Rai shared was about prenatal care, which has been viewed as a strategy to improve pregnancy outcomes for more than a century. Fort Bend County has higher rates of low birthweights than the national goals set by Healthy People 2020. In addition, in Fort Bend County, there has been a 10-percentage point drop in women who receive prenatal care from 2019 to 2020, and in that same time period, the percentage of pregnant women receiving no prenatal care in Fort Bend County increased more significantly compared to the state and the nation.  

Paving a Path Forward 

In closing, Rai shared how the data collected by FBCHHS reflects similar data to what was presented by Understanding Houston. She shared that as a health department, they share this information to get feedback on how the community should work together to address these priority issues.  

Attendees then broke into smaller groups where members of the FBCHHS staff facilitated discussions. Each group picked one of the five priority topics to brainstorm solutions around. All discussions and data shared within each group were logged by an FBCHHS staff member. Information was also shared about ways different people or organizations can participate in addressing these priorities.  

If you are interested in learning more about the data presented or attending an upcoming program, please contact understandinghouston@ghcf.org.  

Key Insights from our Ending Homelessness in Houston Event

On September 21, 2022, Greater Houston Community Foundation hosted a program to celebrate the progress made in reducing homelessness in the Houston three-county area and explore how we can continue to work together to end homelessness in Houston.  

Source: Coalition for the Homeless of Houston, Harris County, 2022 Homeless Count & Survey Results

Results from the 2022 Homeless Count Survey done by the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston, indicate that since 2011, there has been a 64% reduction in the number of people experiencing homelessness in the Houston region, and in June 2015, homelessness among veterans was effectively ended. The Houston region’s successful collaborative approach to tackling this issue has received national recognition. It is a model for other cities as mayors and leaders from cities like Los Angeles and Denver want to learn from leaders in Houston.  

Much of the region’s success can be attributed to The Way Home Houston, a collective effort to prevent and end homelessness in Houston and throughout Harris, Fort Bend, and Montgomery counties. With over 100 partners from all areas of the community, The Way Home Houston has created synergy to help the region achieve this transformation.  

The event kicked off with Charmet Findley, a Houston native who serves as co-chair of the Youth Action Board of The Way Home Youth Homeless Demonstration Program. Findley faced many hardships while growing up in the foster care and juvenile criminal legal systems. He shared with us how he did not know how to secure housing or employment that would lay a solid foundation for stability and a career. Fortunately, Findley was resilient and found his way, but not everyone is this lucky. Findley uses his experiences to help bridge this gap and to serve as a mentor to youth currently involved in systems. 

Curating a Coalition

We then heard from Sara Martinez, Vice President of Development at the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County. Martinez described the progress that our region has made in reducing homelessness by increasing collaboration among service providers and simplifying the path out of homelessness. Since July 2022, there has been a $165 million investment in the Community COVID Houston Program (CCHP), which focuses on providing permanent housing Houston with robust client support. As of August 2022, more than 10,000 people have been served by CCHP funding.

Source: Sara Martinez, Coalition for the Homeless presentation on September 21, 2022

Martinez also shared data on the strategy of moving people from encampments only if they had a place to go. Since this strategy was adopted, The Way Home partners have decommissioned 57 encampments, engaged 343 individuals, and housed 90% of the individuals they engaged. As the work continues to end homelessness in Houston, the Coalition will continue to prioritize increasing permanent housing, strengthening relationships with other systems to expand resources and keep people stably housed, and increasing advocacy around homelessness and related issues to improve the system’s impact.

Housing Affordability and Homelessness

Next, Luis Guajardo, Urban Policy Research Manager at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, who presented data on housing affordability in Houston. Guajardo explained that home ownership offers more than just refuge from the outside world. It also shapes our access to healthcare and career prospects and is the most relevant asset for wealth generation. Guajardo shared three themes that are clear through his research.

Source: Luis Guajardo, Kinder Institute for Urban Research presentation on September 21, 2022

Renters and homeowners face varying obstacles. From 2011 to 2021, there was a $100,000 increase in the gap between the price renters could afford and actual home prices. In addition, people who rent increasingly pay more of their income on housing. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2019, 20% of homeowners spent 30% or more of their annual income on housing, while 51% of renters spent 30% or more of their annual income on housing.

Source: Luis Guajardo, Kinder Institute for Urban Research presentation on September 21, 2022

The real estate market is not meeting the needs of low-income Houstonians, and public sector efforts are insufficient. Today, 500,000 households in Harris County have difficulty affording their homes. The public sector has not been able to offer enough support to offset market failures as there is a shortage of affordable homes available to lower-income households. In addition, according to Eviction Lab, Harris County is a national leader in evictions, with 36,448 eviction filings this year as of September 21. That equates to 1 in every 22 rental households in Harris County being faced with eviction filings.

Because of our region’s strong population and job growth, we are going to continue to need affordable housing, particularly for housing under 60% of Area Median Income (AMI). We already have massive supply shortages, and without significant investment and action, Houston’s affordable housing needs will worsen in the next 10 years if the market is not responsive.

Guajardo ended with recommendations to advance housing affordability. Harris County’s Housing Department aims to build more affordable housing over the next 10 years. Because of limited funding, it will take collaboration from all sectors (i.e., public, private, philanthropic, nonprofit, etc.). We need to plan for lasting housing affordability and availability to ensure we are not in the same predicament in three decades.

Panelist Discussion

The next portion of the program was a panel discussion moderated by Sara Martinez, where the audience was invited to submit specific questions for the panel. Below is a sample of the questions and the responses of our panelists. Responses have been edited for clarity. 

Martinez: Considering the work that each of you do that intersects with homelessness, what is the biggest challenge that you see right now, at this moment?

Thao Costis: Funding is something that we all struggle with on the nonprofit side. Particularly because we work with people experiencing homelessness, we focus on housing and getting people off the streets with support, and they need the support for a long time. So sustainable funding is something that we continue to struggle with.

Leslie Bourne: One issue that my staff and I have the most concerns about is mental health. We used to say, about six years ago, we would say about 35% to 40% of our youth suffer from mental health issues. That’s more than double now. It is one of the main challenges we see among youth who experience homelessness.

Martinez: We know that a lot of adults experiencing homelessness cite an economic trigger as the precipitating event for their homelessness. What do you [Bourne] see with youth experiencing homelessness, what are their triggers?

Bourne: We see young adults subjected to human trafficking, who were in the foster care system, and are involved in the juvenile justice system, which tends to follow them throughout their life. At Covenant House, about 36% of our clients self-report involvement in the justice system. So, we work with youth coming out of the foster care system, the trauma of that, the trauma coming out of the justice system, and a lot of times that plays into being homeless.

Martinez: The 2022 Point-in-Time Count found that half of people who experience homelessness self-report serious mental illness and/or a substance abuse disorder. A national study states that people who have been incarcerated are 13 times more likely than the general public to experience homelessness. Can you elaborate on the intersection of these issues and what that looks like here in our region?

Wayne Young: There is this concept where people often accent mental illness in relation to where they see people in the homelessness system. They see these individuals in encampments and are homeless, and think “of course, they have a mental illness.”

There is the other population whose mental illness is what creates that spiral. They don’t recognize that they have a mental illness. Half of the people in this country who have a mental illness receive treatment in a given year. So, when you think about all the complexity that comes with being able to access mental health services, or not engaging in treatment — or treatment is not effective – the result is that people who experience homelessness and mental health challenges – but don’t get treatment – can tend to engage in advert behaviors that tend to cause them to lose jobs, get evicted, and lose their social support.

Martinez: We face so many challenges, how do you stay positive and maintain optimism?

Marc Eichenbaum: At the end of the day, it is the ethos of Houston. When we look at our city and how we rise to challenges. The reality is other cities don’t do this. Houston has the chutzpah to really dream big and turn dreams into reality.

The organizations up here aren’t saying “we are going to end homelessness” because it is a platitude or slogan, they say it because they really believe it. It is something I believe in because we have shown so much progress, and we are on the right path. We have this collective system with all the tools. We have this engine, and all that engine needs is a little gas — the resources — to really make sure that it [engine] goes.

Click here to watch highlights of the event. If you are interested in learning more about the data presented or attending an upcoming program, please contact understandinghouston@ghcf.org.

Houston is Big

Houston is big. The region’s size and all it encompasses has become an in-joke among residents — “Houston is an hour away from Houston,” the old saying goes. The city is sprawling, populous, industrial and growing. The reasons for the sprawl, rapid population growth and the breadth of successful industries are many and complex. We know that Houston is the 4th largest city in the U.S., but in what ways is Houston big other than in size and population? And how does Houston’s size affect its residents directly and indirectly? 

Qualifying Houston’s “big-ness”

Understanding Houston provides data on Houston’s three-county region, but looking at the nine-county Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) — all of which many people consider “Houston” — can put into perspective the aggregate size of Houston and all of its satellite cities. 

An MSA is the formal definition of a region linked by social and economic factors — the region where we live and work. The Houston MSA includes Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Liberty, Montgomery and Waller counties — an area that spans 9,444 square miles and is larger than the states of Connecticut, Delaware, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Rhode Island. Moreover, more than 100 cities and 40 unincorporated towns are within the Houston MSA boundaries, including Baytown, Fulshear, La Porte and Prairie View. If the Houston MSA were its own state, it would have the 15th largest population in the United States, with  7.2 million residents. 

Even if one were to only consider Harris County, they would still be dealing with an area larger than many other “big” U.S. cities — its 1,778 square miles are enough to fit the cities of Austin, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, New York City and Seattle and still have room to spare.

Sprawl contributes to longer-than-average commute times, food deserts 

The old joke about Houston being an hour away from Houston largely stems from our many suburbs. Houston’s suburban communities offer many benefits for residents, including access to more affordable housing. However, the prominence of far-flung communities also carries consequences, including longer-than-average commute times and reduced investment in urban centers.

Commute times are a big challenge throughout Greater Houston. Many Houstonians face complications from urban traffic and congestion, construction, long distances and lack of public transport outside of the 610 Loop — sometimes all of the above.

Another reason Houston has long commute times is that we are less likely to carpool to work than the average American. Nearly 79% of workers in Houston’s three-county region commuted alone in 2017 compared to the national average of 76%, which helps explain why Houston’s commute times are still higher than the state and national average.

The emphasis on suburban sprawl can also contribute to the formation of food deserts in some of Houston’s urban areas. Food deserts are areas in which residents have a difficult time finding fresh and affordable food, like fruits and vegetables, due to a lack of grocery stores or a lack of affordable transportation to reach grocery stores with any regularity. Some Houston-area food deserts include Fifth Ward, Third Ward, Sunnyside and Acres Homes. Residents of food deserts without access to reliable and affordable transportation may resort to purchasing their food at nearby gas stations, dollar stores and fast food chains, which can result in higher rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

Greater Houston’s large and diverse population

It is a well-known fact that diversity is big in Houston. The city, which years ago was reported to be the most diverse place in America, is what many researchers believe to be an ethnographic snapshot of the future of America. The region is made up of more than two-thirds people of color, who accounted for 95% of Texas’s population growth over the last decade. 

Hispanics/Latinos constitute the largest ethnic group in the region. Close to 2.4 million Hispanic residents accounted for nearly 39% of the region’s population in 2020, with 2 million of those residents representing Harris County alone. Among the 100 most populous counties in the nation, only 12 had higher percentages of Hispanic residents than Harris County. And our region’s Latino population continues to grow – increasing by 26% in the region between 2010 and 2020. 

The three-county area is home to nearly half a million Asian Americans, with the largest two groups being Indian Americans (145,000 in 2020) and Vietnamese Americans (141,400 in 2020). These communities are big not just in the number of residents, but also in cultural and economic import. The Mahatma Gandhi District and Little Saigon are two economic and cultural hubs in which the city’s rich cultural heritage is preserved through community initiatives, small businesses and food. 

Growing income gaps

Although Greater Houston’s diversity is often touted as a strength, quality of life in the region is not always equal. Income inequality is also big in Houston. Although counter-intuitive, an increase in average wealth over the last five decades has led to an increase in income inequality. American families in the top 90th percentile have seen their wealth increase five-fold, while the bottom 10% of earners have gone from having no accumulated wealth to being about $1,000 in debt. 

Income inequality has also increased in the Houston region, where pay gaps are also significant — and some growing — along gender and ethnic/racial lines. Median earnings between different groups are one way to measure pay gaps. Across both the U.S. and Texas in 2017, full-time, year-round male workers made about $10,000 more per year than their female counterparts. While the pay gap in Harris County (at about $7,500) is smaller than in the state and nation, it is significantly larger in Fort Bend and Montgomery Counties, with women earning $15,137 and $20,555 less, respectively.

The pay gap between Black and white workers has widened since the 1970s in the U.S. Black workers are the only racial group to experience declining median earnings nationally between 2010 and 2017. The Black-white pay gap has remained flat in Texas and grown worse in Montgomery County. The largest racial/ethnic pay gap in Texas is among Hispanic workers, who earned just 60 cents for every dollar a white worker made in 2017. 

Big institutions

Physical size aside, Greater Houston has several large institutions that shape life throughout the region. In addition to our beloved food and music cultures, Houston is recognized globally for its expansive arts community and its world-renowned medical center. 

Greater Houston’s art scene is a staple of the region. Stretching from the echoing halls of major institutions in the Museum and Theater District, to the neighborhood murals and the many festivals and installations. Houston has over 550 nonprofit institutions devoted to the arts and sciences that support the equivalent of 25,817 full-time jobs and generated over $1.1 billion in total economic activity in 2017. Understanding Houston has previously discussed the prolific Houston Theater District spanning 17 city blocks, and the 19 world-class museums available in Houston’s Museum District.

Houston is also known for the Texas Medical Center, the world’s largest healthcare complex and life sciences destination. In the Med Center are M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, the number one cancer center in the U.S., as well as Texas Children’s Hospital, the second-ranked children’s hospital in the country. 

Big challenges, big opportunities

Houston is big, but we are still one community despite our size. Making the most of the qualities that help Houston thrive requires thinking with the big picture in mind. Lack of public transit near Fulshear contributes to longer commutes near Downtown. Pay gaps between workers in Greenway impact small business health in Humble. We may call different counties home, but at the end of the day, we are all Houstonians, and what matters to some of us ultimately matters to all of us.