Neighborhoods matter. Where we live has a profound impact on our lives in ways we don’t always understand.
Maps and dashboards that provide quality-of-life data at the neighborhood-level are a key piece to the puzzle of understanding communities. Understanding Houston focuses on county-level data to measure how the region performs overall and across time, but we know that place matters when it comes to moving the needle for the whole region. That’s why we have curated a list of special tools that help you understand Houston’s neighborhoods a little better.
Houston Community Data Connections (HCDC) from Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research
HCDC launched in 2017 to arm community leaders with data to inform planning and decision-making. The site contains a robust online dashboard that provides neighborhood-level indicators for Harris County and a research gallery of interactive data stories on a variety of topics related to demographics, housing, poverty/income and more. The dashboard allows users to overlay various indicators on a map, view detailed community profiles, and compare neighborhoods to one another and over time.
Why we love it
This tool is excellent if you want to create maps to include in your presentations and want a quick profile of a particular neighborhood. We also love how the interactive data stories present a variety of data in context with analysis on fascinating topics. Be sure to view the FAQs and training guide before beginning to get the most from this tool.
Opportunity 360 from Enterprise Community Partners
Opportunity360 Community Dashboard offers a comprehensive view of any neighborhood in the country by measuring five foundational criteria shown to have the greatest impact on how we live: housing stability, education, health and well-being, mobility, and economic security.
Why we love it
The Opportunity360 Community Dashboard offers more than 150 indicators from 27 sources and can compare up to three census tracts at one time. Users request dashboards by entering a location or address and then receive the dashboard via email. The interactive dashboard allows users to export data, filter visuals, print, and hyperlink to specific sections. Be sure to check out Opportunity360’s list of resources, FAQs, and methods. Opportunity360 also offers additional tools, resources, and reports on how other organizations used the data to inform their decision-making and planning, so be sure to explore the website.
Opportunity Atlas, a collaboration among researchers at the Census Bureau, Harvard University, and Brown University
Opportunity Atlas is an interactive tool that measures the extent to which groups move up (or down) the economic ladder by looking at various outcomes of adults and back-mapping where they grew up. Users can select which adult outcomes they want to explore (e.g., household income) for a demographic group (e.g., low-income Asian women) by various neighborhood characteristics (e.g., poverty rate).
Why we love it
The census tract-level data reveal insights about communities most likely to produce adults with promising or poor outcomes. The mapping feature allows you to see how neighborhoods in close proximity can produce adults with vastly dissimilar outcomes, or how different groups in the same neighborhood have contrasting outcomes.
You can download maps as images to include in presentations, download the data itself, and overlay your own data onto the map. Don’t forget to explore interactive stories on the site that are not only insightful, but also give you ideas on how to begin. And, as always, familiarize yourself with the user guide, methods, and FAQs before you begin.
Child Opportunity Index from Diversity Data Kids
The Child Opportunity Index (COI) measures and maps the quality of resources and conditions that matter for children to develop in a healthy way. It combines data from 29 neighborhood-level indicators into a single composite measure.
Why we love it
Users select a metropolitan area to view census tracts. You can also see where children of different racial/ethnic groups live, compare metro areas, download datasets, and view data stories for greater insights. If you have questions after reading the report, reviewing the technical document, and looking over the FAQs, be sure to contact them.
Houston-Galveston Area Council
Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) is a regional organization through which local governments consider issues and collaborate to solve region-wide problems. H-GAC provides extensive research and data to the public through online visual and mapping tools to inform local and regional planning, programming, policy-making, and decision-making.
Why we love it
There is a ton of information here. Depending on availability, data are provided at various geographic levels, including census tracts. Find data and analysis on several topics ranging from employment, environment, land use/planning, transportation including commuting flows and mobility, and population.
Data.census.gov from the Census Bureau
The Census Bureau is the nation’s leading provider of quality data about its people and economy. The best way to access data collected and prepared by the Census Bureau is through data.census.gov, the Bureau’s new data platform designed for all users – not just researchers. The Census Bureau conducts the decennial census, economic census, demographic surveys, economic surveys, housing surveys, provides population estimates and counts, and produces original research.
Why we love it
You can access demographic data at the zip code, census block, block group, and tract level. Users are able to create maps and manipulate data tables for efficiency. The Census Bureau has provided several resources to help users learn this new platform and hone data skills with their Census Academy. Learning tools include data gem videos, online courses, previously-recorded webinars and upcoming webinars.
Location Efficiency Tools from the Center for Neighborhood Technology
Location Efficiency Tools are a suite of web-based tools, comparison maps, downloadable data, research reports, and more that can help communities become more convenient and livable. The Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) works to improve cities’ economic and environmental sustainability, resilience, and quality of life.
Why we love it
The Housing and Transportation (H+T) Affordability Index, one of the tools, provides a comprehensive view of affordability that includes both the cost of housing and the cost of transportation at the neighborhood level. The website contains four tools (H+T Index map, H+T Fact Sheets, Total Driving Costs tool, and Comparison Maps). There’s a lot of info here too, so be sure to check out the about section to learn more about the data available, read the user guide, and find FAQs.
Making a difference starts with the right information
Whether you’re conducting research for a new proposal or looking for data that can help you better direct your own community efforts, using the right tools to find the best information is always a good first step. And, Understanding Houston is a great place to start. Featuring over 200 indicators on key quality of life issues, Understanding Houston aggregates and analyzes county-level data over time with state and national comparisons.
COVID-19 has upended lives around the globe, and Houston is no exception. We continue to hear the worst is yet to come, but it’s difficult to fully comprehend what that means or take proper action without context. To mitigate the effects of this global public health crisis in our region, we must understand the scope of vulnerability in the Greater Houston area.
While we can’t predict the future of COVID-19, we can use local data to better understand what may be in store for our region so we can take collective action to reduce the risk to the most vulnerable communities.
Want to give back and get involved? Visit greaterhoustonrecovery.org to learn more about the Greater Houston COVID-19 Recovery Fund, and how your support can help our neighbors who need it the most.
Following the number of cases and fatalities is a good place to start in understanding the magnitude of the crisis, but it fails to account for the deeper ramifications COVID-19 may have for different people in our region. As with other disasters, the most vulnerable populations will be disproportionately affected. In this brief, we aim to identify and quantify vulnerable groups in our region that COVID-19 will impact in a variety of ways. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, we hope it informs our collective response in assisting those who need it most.
COVID-19 and health risks in the Houston area
At publication time, more than 72,000 people around the world have died from COVID-19 — nearly 15% of whom were Americans. While hospitalization figures are inconsistent among states, the COVID Tracking Project reports more than 41,500 cumulative hospitalizations across the nation. Of course, the novel coronavirus poses significant public health risks, but for some, the risks are much higher.
CDC researchers found that COVID-19 fatality rates increase with age, particularly for those over the age of 65. Death rates for Americans 85 years and older range from 10% to 27%, followed by 3% to 11% among persons aged 65–84 years, 1% to 3% among persons aged 55–64 years, and less than 1% among persons younger than 20. These findings are consistent with data from the first two months of 2020 in China.1
More than 660,000 adults over the age of 65 live in Fort Bend, Harris, and Montgomery counties. Worse, more than 134,000 (about one in five) live alone, with particularly high concentrations in Fort Bend County. Given their heightened vulnerability to the effects of COVID-19, older residents who live alone may face additional challenges safely obtaining the supplies and resources they need in order to practice social distancing. We also know that 134,000 seniors live below 150% of the poverty level, further hindering their ability to weather this crisis.
People with chronic health conditions
People with chronic health conditions like diabetes, compromised immune systems, heart disease, and asthma are also at higher risk of contracting and succumbing to COVID-19. The Institute for Health Policy at UT Health Science Center of Houston conducted an analysis of Census data in Harris County to map individuals with the highest risk for hospitalization and critical care needs. UTHealth researchers found that areas with the largest proportions of residents at high risk of critical illness from COVID-19 include Deer Park-Channel View, East Little York-Settegast, and Humble-Atascocita.
Take a deeper look: Explore this interactive map to see how these and other risk factors correspond to confirmed COVID-19 cases in Harris County.
No one wants to get sick, but for those without health insurance, the stakes are even higher. The Houston Metropolitan Area is home to the largest number of uninsured in Texas, which has the largest number and rate of uninsured in the country. Workers without health insurance are most likely to be part-time, gig economy, or low-wage employees, which means they likely do not have paid sick leave, compounding risks.2
President Trump signed the “Phase 2 Stimulus Package” (the Families First Coronavirus Response Act) on March 18 which provides free testing, but individuals will still be responsible for paying their treatment costs. This could affect some of the more than 1.1 million people, including 184,300 children, in the three-county region who are uninsured.
Harris County issued the first stay-home order effective March 17, but many of us are into our third or fourth week of staying home. The mental and emotional toll of COVID-19, for even the least vulnerable among us, will only continue as the pandemic wears on. Anxiety about the health of loved ones and ourselves, isolation, loneliness, and joblessness can all wear down our sense of well-being as the outbreak’s severity increases.
Coronavirus-related stress likely exacerbates pre-existing mental health conditions and mental health care access challenges in our region. As of 2018, the percentage of adults experiencing frequent mental distress (14 or more days of poor mental health within a month) in Houston’s three largest counties ranged from 9% in Fort Bend County to 12% in Harris County, where more than half of confirmed Houston-area cases of COVID-19 have been reported.
While those who have access to mental health care may be able to continue treatment through remote appointments, many in the Greater Houston region lack access to care altogether. As of 2018, Houston’s three largest counties average one mental health care provider for every 988 residents, lower than the state average and less than half the national average.
Economic risks of COVID-19 in the Houston area
Layoffs due to COVID-19 have begun throughout the Houston area, adding to challenges in healthcare access, mental health and more. Nearly 10 million Americans have filed for unemployment for the first time in the past two weeks, more than 431,000 of whom are from Texas. For the first time, the CARES Act expanded unemployment benefits and loans to these workers, but the process to connect people to these resources in a timely manner will be challenging.
As the graph below shows, these figures are unprecedented. Patrick Jankowski, senior vice president of research at the Greater Houston Partnership estimates mid-March job losses are nearly 38,000 in Metro Houston, though those figures can’t be confirmed until jobs data come out in early May.
The majority of unemployment claims are from workers in the service industry — hotels, bars, restaurants, entertainment, leisure — as well as retail and travel. One out of every five workers in the three-county region is employed in a sector at high-risk for job loss, totaling about half a million people. Houstonians in these high-risk industries earned nearly $4 billion in wages in the second quarter of 2019.
While these industries are at immediate risk from the economic effects of COVID-19, the steep decline in oil prices will have longer-lasting and wide-ranging implications for businesses and workers in the oil and gas industry. Houston, as the energy capital of the world, will certainly be disproportionately affected.
Not all occupations in the aforementioned industries are at risk for layoffs. National data show that low-wage, part-time, and hourly workers in specific sectors have been hit the hardest with job and wage losses. The graph below shows the number of jobs and median annual salaries for workers grouped by job function. Occupations that are most at risk (in red) have the lowest salaries. Traditionally, that also suggests workers are paid hourly, don’t have health insurance, and don’t receive paid sick leave. Many groups will be eligible for paid sick leave and unemployment benefits offered by the federal government’s response to COVID-19, but not all, and workers will still have to make the difficult choice between protecting their health or earning an income. The stakes are high as 40% of Houstonians don’t have $400 in savings to deal with an unexpected emergency.
Small businesses in particular are struggling as everyone is told to stay home, and revenue has plummeted as a result. Nearly 127,000 small businesses employ fewer than 500 people in our region and comprise half of Houston-area businesses—most of these (89,500) employ fewer than 10, according to U.S. Census Bureau County Business Patterns. About 38 percent of small businesses in our region are minority-owned, putting livelihoods at risk and compounding challenges minorities have historically faced.
A survey by the Greater Houston Partnership shows that 91% of its small business members (defined as 500 or fewer employees) have lost revenue, about half are not able to pay staff during the shut-down, and more than one-third have laid off workers. There is hope that recent federal legislation will slow some of the job losses as small businesses take advantage of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which requires companies to use the majority of funds to continue to pay staff.
Vulnerable populations in the Houston area
In addition to the groups identified above, immigrants, those who experience homelessness, and school-aged children are especially vulnerable to the hardships caused by COVID-19. In general, residents who were struggling prior to the pandemic will face compounded economic hardship during the crisis. This includes individuals and families living in poverty and low-income working households, also called Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, and Employed (ALICE). Again, what follows is not a complete list, but we hope to call out examples of people in our community who will need the most help.
Immigrants, especially those who are undocumented, are particularly vulnerable to crises like disasters and pandemics. Immigrants tend to have less access to information and services since they may not be as familiar with credible sources, or with knowing how to navigate the system, and are more likely to encounter language barriers.
More than 1.5 million Houstonians were born outside the U.S. but call the three-county region home—that’s one out of every four people. The Migration Population Institute estimates 473,000 undocumented immigrants live in Greater Houston. According to the Census Bureau, more than half of immigrants in the region speak English less than “very well.” A recent report from ProPublica highlights the obstacles limited English proficient speakers encounter trying to advocate for their medical care. Given there are more than 145 languages spoken in the region, the need for interpreters and translators right now is critical. To view a map of where immigrants live in Houston, click here.
Immigrants also tend to have less access to forms of federal and state assistance (even though most pay taxes) because they are typically excluded from government programs and they are less likely to take advantage of aid for which they are eligible. Compounding their vulnerability, immigrants are more likely to be uninsured and work low-paying jobs. They are also over-represented in sectors immediately affected by layoffs. Ironically, an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute found that six million immigrant workers are at the front lines of keeping Americans healthy and fed during the pandemic by working in hospitals, as care-givers, or on farms.
Immigrants without legal status will have an even harder time weathering this pandemic as they are not eligible to benefit from the trillions of dollars in aid the federal government is releasing. In fact, the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion stimulus package signed by President Trump on March 27, explicitly excludes them. Even mixed-status tax-paying households where American-born children have at least one parent without legal status will be ineligible for benefits.
Those who are homeless
People experiencing homelessness are particularly vulnerable during this pandemic. Homeless individuals tend to be older, and are more likely to suffer from mental illness and chronic conditions, making them more susceptible to the virus. Additionally, it is nearly impossible to follow CDC guidelines regarding social distancing, staying home, and regular hand hygiene without a permanent residence.
A marginalized population in the best of times, the unique needs of these individuals are often deprioritized in times of crisis. According to 2019 data from the Coalition for the Homeless, nearly 4,000 sheltered and unsheltered people live in Fort Bend, Harris, and Montgomery counties. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced on April 1 that the city will rent hotel rooms to shelter Houston’s homeless individuals, but this population will require much more support as this crisis continues.
While school districts in Texas are officially closed through May 4, many parents are preparing for schools to remain shuttered for the remainder of the academic year. Several organizations, districts, teachers, and parents have stepped up to ensure that children continue to learn, but with parents working from home and the general chaos COVID-19 has created, maintaining a high-quality education at home is challenging, particularly for low-income working parents and those without internet access or computers. For example, recent data from Los Angeles Unified (LAUSD), the second-largest school district in the country, show that about 15,000 high school students are absent online and have failed to do any schoolwork, and more than 40,000 (about one-third of all high schoolers) have not been in daily contact with their teachers since mid-March, suggesting that distance-learning is not reaching everyone.
Moreover, when students spend time away from school during the summer, they sometimes lose what they learned over the academic year, a concept known as “summer slide.” One study found that students lost between 25% and 30% of what they learned during the school year, with lower income students at a greater disadvantage than their wealthier peers. About 691,500 public school students (62% of students enrolled) in the three-county region are identified as economically disadvantaged, meaning they qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. For many children, these free or reduced-price school meals are their primary source of daily nutrition. And, for the 98,000 students with disabilities and special needs in our region, the consequences of being out of school for a prolonged amount of time could be even more serious.
Understanding challenges to help Houston move forward
COVID-19 may be the first pandemic any of us have lived through, but this is far from the first time Houstonians have dealt with adversity. We’ve seen how this community comes together — neighbor helping neighbor, stranger helping stranger. For the good of this region that we all call home, please stay home if you are able. The more we reduce our physical contact with each other, the more neighbors we can save. That, if anything, is clear.
Smart Parents, an informational hub for Texas families and regional nonprofits
1 The same CDC study found that while fatality rates might be very low for young people, they are not entirely immune to the effects of COVID-19 — nearly 40% of those hospitalized for coronavirus from mid-February to mid-March were between the age of 20 and 54. 2 Recent federal legislation allows for paid sick leave.
From political leaders and activists to landscape-shifting scientists, musicians and astronauts, the contributions of Black changemakers are embedded in Houston’s identity. And looking forward, there’s no sign of that changing any time soon.
More Houstonians have access to health care, more is being done to protect our air quality, and more of our most vulnerable children are being reached thanks to the remarkable efforts of Black-led organizations in the Houston area.
We’re proud to spotlight just some of the many exceptional Black leaders who help make Houston a better place to live, work and play — both now and in the future.
An important note: We recognize that this list is far from exhaustive. We have plans to cover many more community leaders in the coming months. If you know of a leader or organization that we should cover, please let us know!
Kathy Flanagan Payton
Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation
A stronger Houston region is one where all communities can provide their residents with safe, opportunity-rich places to live. That includes neighborhoods like Houston’s Fifth Ward. And as President and CEO of the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation (Fifth Ward CRC), Kathy Flanagan Payton is dedicated to making the Fifth Ward a community of choice for those who call it home.
“We catalyze resources to build and preserve an inclusive Fifth Ward by developing places and creating opportunities for people to live, work and play,” Flanagan Payton says of her work with Fifth Ward CRC. “My vision for a better Houston includes opportunities for all people to excel and neighborhoods to present themselves as a community of choice — a place where people want to be and not a place where they’ve been left behind.”
Kathy and her team at the Fifth Ward CRC recognize the importance of resident pride and visual appeal when it comes to building a more opportunity-rich community. That’s why they’re spearheading The Lyons Avenue Renaissance, a multi-million dollar revitalization initiative designed to refresh and redesign the Lyons Avenue corridor in a way that honors the community’s history and positions it for a brighter future.
Kathy’s work is inspired not only by the future of the Fifth Ward, but also by the remarkable people who’ve called it home both now and in the past. “As a native ofFifth Ward, the native sons and daughters of this community like the late Barbara Jordan and Mickey Leland have both been great inspirations. And while not famous, my grandmother instilled in me a desire to help people. Her motto was, ‘If I can help somebody, as I pass this way, then my living shall not be in vain.’ From each of them, my desire to make a difference has been further encouraged.”
Looking forward, Kathy and the Fifth Ward CRC hope to build on the momentum of The Lyons Avenue Renaissance, extending their work into a new paradigm that focuses “less on poverty and more on opportunity” in this ever-changing environment.
Dr. Charlene Flash
Avenue 360 Health and Wellness
Despite our reputation as a global leader in health care, Houston-area residents lack health insurance at significantly higher rates than the national average. In fact, the uninsured rate among non-elderly residents grew by 1.3 percentage points from 2016 to 2017 — the first uptick since the Affordable Care Act went into effect. This lack of coverage contributes to an increasing burden from several chronic health conditions, including HIV/AIDS.
“At a time when our HIV testing platforms can provide test results in minutes, we still have nearly 1 in 4 people not being diagnosed until they have progressed to an AIDS diagnosis,” says Dr. Charlene Flash, President and CEO of Avenue 360 Health and Wellness.
Fortunately, Dr. Flash and the team at Avenue 360 are continuing their 30-year legacy of providing quality mental, physical and oral health care services to many different communities in the Houston-area including those living with HIV/AIDS, equipping them with the knowledge and resources they need to lead full, healthy lives.
The name Avenue 360 refers both to the unique paths individuals take through life and the whole care options they can receive at the clinic. “We strive to meet patients at their time and location of greatest need… helping them access housing, mental health services and physical health care,” says Flash.
Looking forward, Dr. Flash hopes to strengthen Avenue 360’s holistic approach to community health and extend equitable health care into spaces that promote physical, social and mental well-being beyond pure treatment.
East Harris County Empowerment Council
While the Houston region’s massive size creates a variety of opportunities for residents, it can also make some communities — like the unincorporated communities of East Harris County — feel forgotten. But together with his team at the East Harris County Empowerment Council (EHCEC), Terence Narcisse is working to fix that.
Through a variety of community partnerships, education programs and outreach initiatives, Terence and EHCEC work collaboratively to improve quality of life, create new opportunities and form new connections for residents in low-opportunity communities like Channelview, Crosby, Galena Park, North Shore and Sheldon.
“My vision is that opportunity reaches every zip code in the Greater Houston/Harris County area, and that every person has access to opportunity in their community and zip codes where they live, work and play,” says Terence of his vision for East Harris County. And with the help of his fellow Houstonians, Terence has faith that he can see that vision through.
And while Dr. Bakeyah Nelson sees Houston taking steps toward improvement, to her and Air Alliance Houston, they aren’t nearly enough.
“It is not enough to parade Houston’s diversity without taking direct steps to address inequities,” says Dr. Nelson. “My vision for Houston is one that holds on to the pieces of our past that make this city great, such as our willingness to do things differently. However, we also need to work collectively to let go of the decision-making that has destroyed the health and well-being of so many communities, particularly communities of color”.
As Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston, Dr. Nelson directs equity-centered community-based research projects, educates the public about environmental inequities, and engages in collaborative advocacy with multiple organizations toward improving air quality and advancing environmental justice in Houston-area communities. Recently, she and her organization helped win two hard-fought battles against planned concrete batch plants in two predominately lower-income neighborhoods. “That was very exciting for us and a relief for the residents whose health and safety were being threatened by facilities potentially being imposed on them.” Dr. Nelson said of the grassroots efforts, adding that “sometimes we win and sometimes we lose but we keep a laser-focus on our mission and we keep on going.”
But no matter how hard the battles may get, Dr. Nelson and Air Alliance Houston remain inspired by the determined community leaders who help them keep their mission alive. “While I find it shameful that we have to fight so hard for basic human rights, I find it inspiring to work with many great local leaders who have a similar vision for Houston, one that is more equitable and just.”
8 Million Stories
It’s estimated that 65% of all American jobs require education past high school. But for the 110,000 disengaged youth throughout the Houston area who are not enrolled in school and are not participating in the labor force, the barriers created by poverty can potentially put these and other employment opportunities out of reach. Marvin Pierre wants to change that.
With his organization 8 Million Stories, Marvin Pierre is working to redirect Houston’s disengaged and at-risk youth through education, skills training and authentic relationships with their communities.
“My vision is to really work to create more equitable opportunities for our youth, to break cycles of poverty,” says Pierre of his work with 8 Million Stories.
Across all three counties, Black youth are referred to the juvenile justice system at more than two-to-three times the rate of White youth. Working directly with youth who have found themselves involved in the criminal justice system, removed from school or otherwise disadvantaged, Marvin and his team provide a variety of programs designed to help these young people reach self-sufficiency including career training, education credits and mental health support.
“I’m inspired by the level of resilience that Houstonians have. In my experience with young people and working with Houstonians and learning about their stories and what made them successful, I’m inspired by how they’ve overcome challenges,” says Pierre. “Houston is a great city to do this work. We welcome organizations that seek to learn more and how they can be engaged.”
Houston Area Urban League
Despite Houston’s reputation as a highly diverse, economically empowered region, striking disparities in income, education, housing and health still disproportionately affect Black residents. Judson Robinson III and his team at the Houston Area Urban League are working to reverse these trends and empower disadvantaged Houston-area residents and their communities.
Affiliated with the United Way and National Urban League, the Houston Area Urban League (HAUL) provides social services and programs to more than 10,000 economically disadvantaged residents including housing, workforce training, youth development, health and wellness initiatives and their entrepreneurship center.
In providing these services to those who need them most, Robinson hopes to inspire more inclusion and greater unity in the Houston area. “One of the things we’ve worked on is closing the equality gap… Certain communities, certain individuals and organizations, need more support than others to be on par,” says Robinson of his work with HAUL. “If we can start to look at the greater good and being more inclusive and helpful to others, it would be good for all of us in the long run.”
Moving forward, Robinson hopes to spread awareness and connect more residents with vital services and programs including housing assistance, job placement, foreclosure avoidance, tax filing and even civic engagement. “We hope to serve 12,000 clients, because it’s important to the people, it gives them a chance to get back on track or to keep from heading down the wrong path.”
Underscoring HAUL’s work is the incredible inspiration provided by Houston-area residents. “They will help,” says Robinson of his fellow Houstonians. “We’ve seen that when we’ve faced emergencies in the city, and we take a lot of pride in being Houstonians. There’s something about that. In closing, we hope to meet those interested in our work at the upcoming National Urban League Conference this coming August in Houston.”
GHCF’s new regional community indicators initiative, is designed to promote
informed, collaborative action for our community.
provides an open, easily-accessible website that aggregates independent data
from 70 data sources on quality-of-life issues across the Houston region’s
three most populous counties—Fort Bend, Harris, and Montgomery. It aims to
equip community members with the knowledge they need to make informed giving
decisions to help create a more vibrant Houston with opportunity for all.
Understanding Houston covers eight main topics: arts & culture, civic engagement, community context, education, economic opportunity, environment, health, and housing. The topics encompass more than 200 community indicators that provide factual insight into our community’s strengths and challenges across the three counties.
“At the end of the day, this initiative is about connecting people and inspiring them to take action. As the Foundation continues to grow with and for our community, Understanding Houston will be a vital resource for our donors, allowing them to work even closer together and with others to create positive change.”
– Stephen Maislin, President & CEO of the Greater Houston Community Foundation
On November 21, more than 370 leaders from the philanthropic, business, and nonprofit sectors gathered at the Briar Club for the sold out launch event. Click here to view event photos.
The Greater Houston Community
Foundation is grateful to Host Committee Chairs Sheila and Ron Hulme, Laura
Jaramillo, and Randa and K. C.
Weiner, as well as the entire Host Committee, Indicator Advisory Committee,
and the GHCF Governing Board for their support in planning a successful launch.
Before the event, guests were asked to participate by voting on “What Matters to You.” Everyone had an opportunity to cast their vote and become a part of this revolving installation. The commonalities in passions sparked lively conversations about quality of life in Houston.
During the luncheon, emceed by Domnique Sachse, KPRC Channel 2 News Anchor, guests heard from passionate leaders about the topics that mattered most to them. Winell Herron, Group Vice President of Public Affairs, Diversity and Environmental Affairs for H-E-B, shared H-E-B’s focused efforts in improving access to quality education, particularly supporting successful teachers who make a difference in the classroom. Julie Martineau, Executive Director for the Montgomery County Community Foundation, spoke about housing affordability in Montgomery County and the importance of living where you work, play, and pray. Quynh-Anh McMahan, Senior Program Officer for The George Foundation, spoke about her deep personal connection to Fort Bend County, mental health, and previewed The George Foundation’s exciting new plans. Finally, Frost Murphy, GHCF Governing Board Member and entrepreneur, shared his journey spearheading new efforts at HeartGift to help more children across the world, his new work with others to address child poverty, and the support Community Foundation provided him on his philanthropic journey. Together, speakers informed how impactful data can be in making significant change, how these specific topics genuinely affect them on a personal level, and about the commitment to be a part of that change.
“So…whether your passion is reducing childhood poverty, training heart surgeons around the world, or whatever is important to you – Greater Houston Community Foundation can help get you the data you need to make a bigger difference.”
– Frost Murphy
Thank you to the many individuals, community-based organizations, philanthropic funders, data partners, and civic and corporate leaders who have supported this effort.
Why those who need the census most may also be those it threatens.
As a Latina whose family comes from the western border of Texas with Mexico, I have always felt the tug of two identities.
The calling to civic duty runs generations deep in my family, so when the 2010 census questionnaire landed in my mailbox, I was determined to be counted. However, the answers to my questionnaire were complicated by my present and historical position as a queer woman of color living in Texas.
With relative certainty, I was able to check the box next to “Yes. Mexican, Mexican Am., Chicano”, but when it came to the subsequent (required) question of “race”, I didn’t feel like I matched any of the options presented to me.
Had I had the right to legally marry, I probably would have designated my long-term, live-in partner as my “wife”, but since we were also required to include our “sex”, checking that box felt like outing ourselves to the same government that declined to legally acknowledge our partnership. So instead, we talked around our truth and settled on “roommate”.
Socially, a lot can change in ten years; and it has.
Changing dynamics and growing threats on the path to the 2020 Census
In 2011, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed. In 2015, it became legal for me to marry.
Since 2017, however, even more has changed. While life for vulnerable communities has always come with its challenges, we’ve see new threats in laws, repeals of protections, bans, and acts of violence that have emboldened discrimination and incidents of hostility toward immigrants, people of color, the Muslim community and other religious minorities, as well as trans and gender non-binary folks. This has, and will continue to have, a chilling effect as communities look to protect themselves and their families.
And this is just the beginning when it comes to the challenges our region faces in our efforts to count everyone in the 2020 Census. For many people, talking about your country of origin, race and/or ethnicity can be complicated.
“The way you identify may seem excluded from the census questionnaire or may feel too risky to disclose on a government form.”
And while we’ve made great strides in the LGBTQ community, characterizing or implying one’s sexuality or gender for government documents might not be possible or feel safe for everyone in our community.
Beyond this, the census faces other challenges like under-resourcing; some estimate that regional field offices have been reduced by half and that there will be 200,000 fewer census workers to knock on doors. The census can reconfigure political power, congressional districts and representation of states in the Electoral College. And with this, the risks associated with putting the questionnaire online for the first time are significant. Between online security issues and malicious campaigns designed to confuse or profit from vulnerable users, moving the census online comes with its challenges.
The growing risk of underrepresentation
The impact of these challenges for the census itself is increased risk of undercount in our communities. In our region, the groups who have historically been undercounted are not too dissimilar from other regions. According to early research from January Advisors, these are renters, communities of color, households with children zero to five years old, those in crowded housing units, people living in poverty, as well as at-risk groups like the LGBTQ community, people experiencing homelessness, religious and ethnic minorities, and residents impacted by Hurricane Harvey. However, for the Houston region, the difference is that, as the near-third largest metropolitan area in the country, these groups and risk-factors are highly represented in our community, and are in some cases, the same groups who stand to lose the most.
“The census affects how billions of our tax dollars will come back into our communities through federal budgeting allocations over the next decade.”
If people are undercounted in the census, we see smaller budgets for services and programs like: public transit, highway planning and construction grants; billions of dollars in community development block grants; billions in housing related dollars, including Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers and other housing assistance programs; teachers, textbooks, and other educational expenses; Title I grants that help local educational agencies serve low-income families and communities; special education grants; funds for the national school lunch program; Head Start; grants for improving teacher quality; and Community Health Centers serving low-income community members.
Since 2010, Houston has rapidly grown and shifted at a well-documented rate. The 2020 Census is our chance to recalibrate and keep up with the demands associated with our growing population.
It is no accident that Houston in Action, with its mission to increase access and breakdown systemic barriers to civic participation, began planning for the 2020 Census during its formation in mid-2018. The members of Houston in Action reflect the multiplicity and abundance of our region’s populace and understand first-hand what’s at stake for their communities and the region at-large if we don’t all put in the hard work of counting each and every one of our friends, families and neighbors.
Houston in Action facilitates a first of its kind, regional Complete Count Committee, in partnership with the City of Houston and Harris County, engaging dozens of community groups and leaders to educate and energize our city toward a complete count.
Houston in Action members are front and center in our collective effort to reach a complete count for the 2020 Census: members like BakerRipley and the hundreds they serve at their Head Start centers; community members in the care of Hope Clinic, young people of color organizing their communities with the support of organizations like United We Dream, Mi Familia Vota, and Jolt; the Houstonians affected by Harvey and served through the housing work of groups like Avenue CDC and Texas Housers, those whose communities are represented in the work of coalitions like Empowering Communities Initiative, TFN-Texas Rising, and the Houston Area Urban League; and Houston area residents who rely on our public libraries, community centers, and public schools for education and access to the internet, to name only a few of those involved in the Houston in Action 50+ member network.
It is this on-the-ground experience that has shaped our coordination around the 2020 Census. Our work is grounded in the fundamental belief that when we create a culture of organizing ourselves for the empowerment of marginalized communities, we are better prepared to identify opportunities to engage civically, influence the systems and structures that affect our lives, and improve quality of life throughout our region.
“When we create a culture of organized empowerment, we are better prepared to influence and engage with the systems that affect our quality of life.”
The 2020 Census presents a great opportunity in this effort. For over a year, we’ve been able to build important connections, have conversations and coordinate in ways that did not previously exist. Together, we have shaped common strategies, shared resources, and built foundational systems for sharing critical impact data. We’ve developed infrastructure to grow our collective capacity and unite our efforts like never before — all necessary elements in our work to shift systems and culture, and create equitable access to civic participation for residents of the Houston region.
However, we know that we can’t do this without great partners and support, and that we can’t do this overnight. While our sights are set in the near-term on the decennial census and work just ahead, we are working for true equity and systems change for generations to come. It’s the kind of change that will be incremental — but long-lasting.
Because we know a lot can change in ten years; and it will. Together we can make it happen.
Frances Valdez is the Executive Director of Houston in Action after practicing immigration law for 13 years. Houston in Action is an initiative made up of people and organizations who have come together to advance our community forward through our respective and collective work to build a stronger Houston through a culture of civic engagement.
How research reinforces the importance of high-quality early childhood education.
The vitality of Houston depends, in part, on the aptitude of the next generation to achieve success. Houston needs a capable workforce that can handle the challenges of an ever-changing global economy, and the factors that shape the capacity of our future workforce depend on the decisions we make now as a region.
Decades of science demonstrate that the ability of an individual to achieve success is strongly influenced by how the brain develops during the first few years of life. From birth to age three, the brain makes over one million neuronal connections per second. These neuronal connections are vital to building a strong, healthy brain structure. The brain is responsible for every human function, from breathing to executive function, and how the brain develops during the first few years of life influences a person’s potential for learning, problem-solving, motor skills, emotional and behavioral function, and essentially every other aspect of human life. Yet, not all children have the same opportunities for the experiences and interactions necessary for healthy brain development.
An inequitable start for too many children
While the biological process of one neuron connecting to another is driven partly by genetics, environmental factors play a significant role in the quantity and quality of those connections. Whether connections are maintained, wither, or die depends on the input a child’s brain receives from his or her environment and relationships with caregivers. “Serve and return” is a phrase coined by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University that describes the types of interactions necessary for optimal brain development.
Serve and return interactions are those that occur between caretaker and child and involve responding to a child’s non-verbal and verbal cues with kindness, affection, physical touch, language and other forms of communication. While this seems fairly simple, the brain requires consistent, frequent serve and return interactions, which can be difficult for many working families, especially the working poor who often have multiple jobs. Moreover, many children spend the majority of their time in childcare centers where engagement with young children is limited to diaper changes and feeding.
Most caregivers want to give their children as many opportunities as possible, yet there are many social, economic, political and environmental factors that create barriers to caregivers’ ability to optimize brain development. For example, poverty, food insecurity, and neighborhood violence significantly increases the risk of parental stress and depression, which impedes caregiver-child interactions. Poor housing conditions, such as the presence of lead paint, can directly impact the brain development of a child, as lead deposits can cause neuronal cell death in the brain. Lastly, adverse childhood experiences and unrelenting, sustained stress have substantial and lasting impacts on both caregiver and child.
An investment gap that must be filled
The complex and large-scale nature of all the factors that can influence brain development during childhood has led to a gap in investment from birth to age three because the task can seem insurmountable. Also, access to families with children age three and younger can be difficult if they are not in a childcare system. Thus, philanthropy and advocacy organizations often steer their efforts to a more manageable goal of increasing access to pre-kindergarten. Increasing opportunities for early learning is very important and research has shown improved academic and economic gains from pre-K, especially for children from low-income families. However, these outcomes depend on how aligned the pre-K program is with developmental science.
The part of the brain primarily responsible for learning and memory is called the hippocampus, which unlike most of the other parts of the brain, continuously forms new neuronal connections throughout a lifetime. That is why adults can be life-long learners. However, the critical window of brain development during the first three years of life occurs in the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for intelligence, personality, “soft skills,” and many other vital human functions. Optimal cerebral function is required for individuals to be successful in the workplace and have healthy relationships. Yet, the cerebral cortex is not adequately stimulated by all pre-K programs. Moreover, most pre-K programs begin at age four, which is after the majority of brain architecture has already been developed.
Two-generational, whole family approaches hold tremendous promise
Early Head Start (EHS) is an excellent example of how policymakers developed a two-generation intervention based on science. EHS provides parental support to improve caregiver brain-building skills, and services start during pregnancy and continue through age three. EHS intentionally goes beyond a traditional “educational” framework to include components that stimulate the intellectual, social, and emotional aspects of a child’s development. This creates neuronal connections in other parts of a child’s brain, not just the hippocampus. EHS also addresses the social and economic needs of the parents, which, as described above, can be barriers to optimal caregiver-child interactions. This “two-generation” approach is an important aspect of the EHS program and is worthy of emulation.
National efforts are well underway to catalyze a resurgence of this approach. Simply put, two-generational approaches acknowledge an obvious truth: different children’s outcomes are largely dependent on the vitality of the families and neighborhoods in which they live. Hence, two-generation approaches intentionally focus on addressing the needs of the whole family and the factors that keep them from prospering, with the goal of optimizing conditions for both parents and their children.
In Houston, we have several opportunities to support or create holistic, two-generation interventions that facilitate early childhood development. The Mayor’s Complete Communities initiative provides an opportunity to leverage current neighborhood investments to reduce many adverse factors that affect families and create a caregiver educational program that increases caregiver brain-building skills. In partnership with the Children’s Museum of Houston, the City of Houston Health Department has launched Houston Basics, which is a public health campaign designed to increase caregiver serve and return with young children. Houston Basics can be leveraged to launch more intensive brain-building training for caregivers, as well as connect families to social support resources. Other cities, such as St. Paul, Minnesota, have increased the brain-building skills of childcare workers, and have standardized and improved childcare centers while also providing education and job training to help parents move out of poverty.
The opportunity for a focused, data-driven investment strategy
If we want improved outcomes for Houston’s children, we have to align our priorities, policies, and investments with science. Rather than divide our funding priorities and advocacy efforts in early childhood into education, childcare, and parenting program silos, we need to have a comprehensive and integrated approach that provides support for children and their families from pregnancy through Kindergarten. We should follow the child, rather than the sector. We also need to develop multi-sector interventions that can address some of the economic and social challenges many families experience, while also building their capacity to be brain builders despite these challenges. Lastly, we need to understand there are significant opportunity costs when we do not prioritize solutions that focus on the first few years of life. As we wait longer to intervene, the cost of intervention increases and the return on investment decreases.
Understanding Houston is a great step towards using data and science to inform decision-making. It also provides a platform for a variety of stakeholders to receive information, which hopefully will spur dialogue and challenge beliefs amongst a variety of interested parties. Houston is a strong, resilient region. The task of ensuring every child has the same opportunity for optimal brain development is large, but if we allow developmental science to shape our policies, practices and investments, we can ensure a bright, prosperous future for Houston’s children and prospective workforce.
Quianta Moore, M.D., J.D., is the Fellow in Child Health Policy at the Baker Institute for Public Policy. Her research focuses on developing empirically informed policies to advance the health and equitable future of children and their communities. Read more.
As the keeper of Houston’s citywide education vision, Good Reason Houston is committed to making sure that happens.
Good Reason Houston exists for a very simple purpose — to ensure that every child, in every Houston neighborhood, excels in a world-class public school and thrives in the Houston of tomorrow. That means that we must transform our schools today. This is a citywide challenge and we need a citywide solution. Good Reason Houston will partner with those districts that are ready and willing to take bold and courageous action to transform their schools now, not five years from now. We began this work two years ago, and as we built the foundation for our strategy it became clear that the families most directly served and impacted by public education did not play an active role in critical education decisions impacting their children. As a community, we haven’t spent enough time trying to understand what families need and want for their children. In order to create the kind of citywide changes Houston needs, Good Reason Houston immediately began thinking about opportunities to bridge the gap between families and the schools and districts that serve them.
The first step required more and better information about parent attitudes toward the schools they have access to today, and what they hope for in the schools of tomorrow. Collecting that kind of information — across districts, across systems, across geography and demography — is no small task, so we engaged a best-in-class research partner to lead the work — Wakefield Research Partners.
Good Reason Houston partnered with Wakefield Research Partners to interview more than 1,500 families across Houston to understand how those families feel about the schools their children currently have access to and what they’d like to see for their children in the future. We then asked parents about the kind of information they wanted and needed to make decisions about their child’s education, and finally, we talked to them about their willingness to become advocates at the school and district level for education transformation.
Wakefield Research completed phase two quantitative research through a survey conducted between February 20, 2019, and March 28, 2019. 1,540 Houston parents across nine independent school districts and local charter schools completed the survey. Districts represented in the survey include Aldine, Alief, Channelview, Galena Park, Houston, Pasadena, Sheldon, Spring and Spring Branch. 216 of the total respondents have children who attend a charter school. The margin of error for this study among all Houston parents is +/- 2.5 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
These findings are illuminating and we hope that others will learn as much from them as we have. To that end, we are releasing this research on our website: goodreasonhouston.org/parentresearch.
For Good Reason Houston, this data tells us parents are ready and willing to be a part of this discussion. We believe the TEA A-F ratings are a critical first step. We will work closely with parents and districts to make sure that parents not only have information, but have the ability to do something about it — whether that means improving their existing school, choosing to attend a different school, or joining with the district to create entirely new school options.
We’ve included some highlights below, and we hope this is just the beginning of a new citywide conversation about what parents want and expect for their children and how we — city and district leaders, educators, policymakers, education stakeholders, and the public — can ensure that our schools provide that for every family.
Parents overwhelmingly support a common accountability system for schools and find that information valuable. The Texas Education Agency’s new A-F system was very popular with the vast majority of parents. They found it to be a credible source of objective information that allowed them to make more informed decisions.
Parents think there is more to be done to improve the quality of schools. Parents are not satisfied with the quality of their own child’s school or the system as a whole. Parents in this city want and need more schools rated A and B.
Parents clearly want more diverse public school options for their students. Parents across districts and systems felt very positively about a variety of school types and want both better access to different kinds of schools, and more information about what is available for their students.
Parents desire easier access to quality school options. Parents need better access to information, transportation and enrollment opportunities to feel like they have access to quality choices. For many parents, it’s not enough to make sure good schools exist; we must also make sure they are realistic options for more students.
Parents will take action and advocate for their children’s education. Parents want changes and they’re willing to work for them if we as a city can give them the resources and support to become advocates for not only their own child, but for all children.
Parents are not concerned with the political infighting in education, they just want good schools. Despite the political debates about testing and accountability and divisive rhetoric about charter schools, parent opinion has not been impacted. This is clear in the discussion of the A-F system. Similarly, fewer than 1-in-10 parents feel negatively about charter schools, the majority feel positive and want to learn more, and more than 70% of parents believe quality is far more important than how a school is governed.
Good Reason Houston is on a mission to increase the number of students succeeding in high-quality schools today and thriving in the workforce tomorrow.
Alexandra “Alex” Hales Elizondo is the founding CEO of Good Reason Houston. Prior to launching Good Reason Houston, Alex served as the Executive Director of Teach For America Dallas-Fort Worth, leading a team of 50 staff members and a network of 1,200 educators.
How evolving perspectives on mental health lead to more effective treatment and prevention.
I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could! As a new Houstonian and the new Executive Director of The Hackett Center for Mental Health, I am honored to join the Understanding Houston initiative to address important quality of life issues impacting the Houston region. It’s time we all acknowledge that mental health is a critically important part of our overall health.
Most know that the mind and body are interconnected and intertwined and that our mental health impacts other parts of our physical health. A person with depression is more likely to experience cardiovascular disease, diabetes or stroke. A person with cancer, chronic pain or coronary artery disease is more likely to experience a major depressive episode, as are people with asthma and other respiratory conditions.1 And, when these disorders occur together, the risk of death is significantly increased.2 That is why when we talk about “health” we must include the “mental” as well as the “physical.”
It’s never too soon to start paying attention
We know that mental illness is, by definition, a pediatric illness. We say that because the majority of mental illness begins in childhood and adolescence. Half of all mental health conditions manifest by the time a child turns 14, and 75% of all lifetime cases have presented by age 24.3 And like many physical health conditions, early detection and treatment of mental health issues can improve long-term outcomes, allowing those diagnosed to lead full and productive lives.
“Neuro-biological factors, along with adverse environmental conditions, are all factors underlying mental disorders.4”
Our mental health is impacted by many factors during our lifetime. In addition to the biological and brain chemistry factors affecting conditions like depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and schizophrenia, the natural and mental conditions in which we are raised also play an important role in our long-term mental health. Being bullied or abused, living through natural disasters, experiencing a divorce, going through or witnessing violence, economic hardships, or losing a loved one, all increase the chance that we develop a mental illness, and even more so for people in poverty and people of color given the extra challenges they face.5
Mental health issues are all around us
All of us have circumstances and experiences that may give rise to mental, emotional or behavioral conditions. In fact, as is the case for me and my family, it is likely that either you or someone you know, has either had or will have a mental health challenge.
“We are never more than “2 degrees of separation” away from a mental health concern. Our own family. Our co-worker’s child. We all know someone.”
Mental disorders affect people of all ages, backgrounds, races, ethnicities, geography and socioeconomic status. In a recent study, 3 out of 4 Texans stated that they have a friend or family member that has experienced a mental health issue.6
Fighting the stigma
Mental illness may not discriminate, but people do, which has led to the “stigma” associated with mental disorders. To eliminate the stigma and the prejudice and discrimination that can arise from mental, emotional and behavioral conditions, the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute created the “Okay to Say™” campaign.
88% of Texans agree that the “stigma” surrounding mental illness needs to be removed.7 When people “Stand Up and Speak Out” it becomes “Okay to Say” that you or a loved one has a mental illness. This is so important because talking openly about our mental health, and our mental health needs can bring about the support, hope and treatment that people need to recover so that all Texans and Houstonians can lead full and productive lives.
“It is okay to say I have dealt with depression for years. Thanks to some wonderful medical professionals, I was diagnosed at an early stage and have been treated continuously. As a result I have functioned at a high level for 40 plus years. More people will get help if it is okay to say.”
– Tom L.
Building a more supportive community right here in Houston
In the Greater Houston area, I am already learning how fortunate we are to have many talented and caring individuals and organizations that are seeking to prevent mental illness and treat people with mental health conditions. We are also fortunate that the City of Houston, and its partners at the Baylor College of Medicine Menninger Department of Psychiatry, and their affiliate partner Texas Children’s Hospital, just received a system of care grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). This four-year grant will build on the collaborative spirit already present in Houston to create a more coordinated network of effective services and support systems that have been proven to advance partnerships and improve lives.
The focus of this grant will be the 150 youth in Harris County who first experience signs and symptoms of psychosis each year, along with youth who experience bipolar disorder, and this is an amazing opportunity for schools, professionals, youth and families — the entire community — to come together to improve capacity and access to critical services and supports!8
“The evidence shows that treatment is effective and that people can and do recover from mental illness.9”
More good news is that we are increasingly better at preventing mental illness, identifying mental health conditions sooner and intervening so that all of us can have emotional well-being.
Our mission isn’t over
One of the challenges our region still faces is that the majority of children, adolescents, young adults, adults and older adults who have mental health challenges do not receive treatment of any kind. One reason is because of stigma. Another is because people don’t know how to navigate the system.
31% of Texans said that if they or a family member needed help, they wouldn’t know where to go or who to contact for treatment. That is why The Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute continues to educate Texas legislators to strengthen access to mental healthcare. With Governor Abbott declaring mental health an emergency item for the 86th Texas Legislature, the session was one of the most significant in recent memory. Not only did legislators maintain and build upon previous advancements, but the creation of the Texas Child Mental Health Care Consortium will also impact the treatment of children with mental health issues and cultivate Texas’ need to grow as a research hub for mental health and substance abuse issues for years to come.
It’s “Okay to Say™” that you need help
In addition to policy change and investments in mental health, we need to talk about mental health, identify and implement strategies to improve mental health and make sure that it is “Okay to Say” so we can speak openly about mental illness. So, if you or someone you know can benefit from services and supports, please let them know that it is “okay” to talk their doctor, clergy, school counselor, family member, friend or someone they can trust, and let them know that you care and it’s okay to get help.
Together, we can and will make a difference to improve the lives of our fellow Houstonians and Texans, and I am grateful and eager for the opportunity to help.
Gary M. Blau, Ph.D is the Executive Director of The Hackett Center for Mental Health, a Regional Center of the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute. Prior to this he was Chief of the Child, Adolescent and Family Branch at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Follow him on Twitter @GaryBlauPhD
Through the generosity of the Maureen and Jim Hackett Family, The Hackett Center for Mental Health was established in January 2018 as the inaugural regional center of the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute. Leveraging the participation of exceptionally skilled researchers, community leaders, and health care providers, The Hackett Center’s purpose is to transform systems and influence policy through unprecedented collaboration.
The Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute (MMHPI) is a leading policy and research organization that identifies effective mental health care solutions and partners with policy makers and communities to improve access to high quality, mental health services. MMHPI’s vision is for Texas to become a national leader in providing mental health services. Follow MMHPI on Twitter @TxMind
Lichtman, J.H., et al. (2008). Depression and coronary heart disease: Recommendations for screening, referral, and treatment: A science advisory from the American Heart Association prevention committee of the council on cardiovascular nursing, council on clinical cardiology, council on epidemiology and prevention, and interdisciplinary council on quality of care and outcomes research: Endorsed by the American Psychiatric Association. Circulation, 118(17), 1768-1775 Tanuseputro, P., Wodchis, W. P., Fowler, R., et al. (2015). The health care cost of dying: A population-based retrospective cohort study of the last year of life in Ontario, Canada. PLoS One, 10(3): e0121759. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0121759. Pinquart, M. & Duberstein, P.R. (2010). Depression and cancer mortality: A meta-analysis. Psychological Medicine, 40(11)
Kessler, R., Amminger, G, Aguilar-Gaxiola, S., Alonso, J., Lee, S., & Ustun, T. (2007). Age of onset of mental disorders: A recent literature review. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 20(4): 359-364.
Kirkbride, J. B., Jackson, D., Perez, J., Fowler, D., Winton, F., Coid, J. W., Murray, R. M., & Jones, P. B. (2013). A population-level prediction tool for the incidence of first-episode psychosis: Translational epidemiology based on cross-sectional data. BMJ Open, 3(2), 1–12. Estimates of the incidence of first-episode psychosis are extrapolated from studies by Kirkbride and colleagues that used a range of ages (14–35 years) during which the first episode of psychosis is likely to occur.
Exploring how life expectancies vary across Houston-area neighborhoods.
Houston is home to the world’s biggest medical center, which includes the largest children’s hospital, the nation’s top-ranked cancer hospital, and internationally recognized pioneers in research and medicine. Yet, if you drive less than five miles southeast of the Texas Medical Center, you will find clusters of neighborhoods in the Sunnyside community where the expected life expectancy is as low as 66 years — on par with countries such as Rwanda and Pakistan. Drive five miles west of the Texas Medical Center and you’ll reach a neighborhood in Bellaire where the average life expectancy is 87 years. So, in a simple 15-minute drive through Houston, you’ll find two communities with two vastly different health prospects defined by a staggering 21-year gap in life expectancy. This was a major finding from a recent analysis conducted by the Episcopal Health Foundation (EHF) on life expectancy in Texas. The EHF research team used census-tract level estimates of life expectancy at birth in Texas produced by the USALEEP Neighborhood Life Expectancy Project and demographic data from the U.S. Census Bureau to understand why we see such large gaps in life expectancy from one neighborhood to the next.
Mapping Houston-area life expectancies
For Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties, the USALEEP published life expectancy data for 830 neighborhoods (or “census tracts”). When these neighborhoods are ranked by life expectancy, data reveals that half of the neighborhoods had life expectancies above 78 years while the other half had life expectancies below 78 years. If we divide these Houston-area communities into five equal groups based on their life expectancies, the “healthiest” neighborhoods (those in the top 20%) had life expectancies between 81 years to 89 years. Meanwhile, the neighborhoods in the bottom 20% had life expectancies that ranged from 65 years to 75 years.
When the data from the USALEEP project is matched with demographic data from the U.S. Census Bureau, it reveals stark differences between communities with the longest life expectancies compared to communities with the shortest life expectancies.
Poverty was significantly correlated with life expectancy in the Houston area. Among Houston-area neighborhoods with the shortest life expectancies, over a quarter of residents (26%) lived in poverty. Yet only 8% of people living in the neighborhoods with the longest life expectancy had poverty-level incomes.
In Houston-area neighborhoods that have the longest life expectancies, a slight majority of people (51%) are White, 23% are Hispanic or Latino, 15% are Asian, and 11% are Black. In contrast, Houston-area neighborhoods that have the shortest life expectancy had significantly higher percentages of Black (33%) and Hispanic (45%) populations and significantly smaller proportions of White (18.7%) and Asian populations (2.5%).
Communities in the Houston area with the longest life expectancies had incredibly high levels of educational attainment. 53% of adults living in neighborhoods with the longest life expectancy had a bachelor’s degree or higher. Meanwhile, in neighborhoods with the shortest life expectancy, only 13% of adults had a bachelor’s degree or higher.
A tale of two Houstons
This data underscores recent concerns about how rising income inequality and high levels of racial residential segregation is leading to a “tale of two Houstons” where one set of neighborhoods enjoys increasing levels of wealth and another experiences concentrated levels of intergenerational poverty. Our analysis is a critical reminder that these inequities impact health and well-being in real and tangible ways.
“While this data may feel dispiriting, one thing we are learning in the research is that these differences are not inevitable.”
Recently a major study conducted by economists from Stanford and Harvard found that while there are significant differences in life expectancy between low-income and wealthy Americans, low-income Americans fare better in certain local communities compared to others. The researchers found that the gap in life expectancy between the rich and poor is much narrower in cities located mostly in the East and West coasts compared to cities in the Midwest and the Southern USA. This demonstrates the power of local conditions on community health and should encourage us to understand how we can replicate the successes happening in some local communities to continue to create healthy and vibrant communities for all Houston area residents.
One critical way forward is to ensure that we consider the root causes of poor health when developing strategies to improve health in low-income communities.
Building a broader perspective on health in our communities
In addition to improved access to medical care, a growing body of research is identifying how the biggest influences on population health include factors such as access to healthy foods, housing, transportation, and environmental conditions.
From producing research that illuminates the connection between socioeconomic factors and health to funding community-based clinics to go outside the walls of their exam room and into communities to address underlying causes of poor health, The Episcopal Health Foundation is committed to helping shift the focus on improving health, not just healthcare. Our hope is that this data serves as a catalyst for non-profit leaders, healthcare providers, and policymakers to develop creative strategies to ensuring ALL Houston area — and particularly the most disadvantaged — live the longest and healthiest lives possible.
Robiel Abraha is a research associate at the Episcopal Health Foundation. By providing millions of dollars in grants, working with congregations and community partners, and providing important research, EHF supports solutions that address the underlying causes of poor health. With more than $1.2 billion in estimated assets, the Foundation operates as a supporting organization of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas and works across 57 Texas counties.
There are 3,938 homeless men, women and children in the Harris, Montgomery and Fort Bend counties, combined, according to the 2019 homeless count by the Coalition for the Homeless. And as of now, Houston-native Sharon Johnson is one of them.
Johnson, 57, was born and raised in Houston and grew up in the Westbury area. As an adult, she continued to live in Houston, but moved often in order to find affordable, safe housing. As a graphic and website designer, Johnson was able to “make it work for her and her family.”
Though, in the fall of 2018, Johnson wasn’t paid for three months by her primary client. After depleting her savings, she was served eviction papers in December. By January 1, 2019, Johnson was homeless.
“I used to be one of the people that went to the food kitchens to help out,” Johnson said. “And all of the sudden, now I find myself on the flip side of that, where, you know, it’s like I can’t survive.”
For more than two weeks, Johnson crashed at whoever’s house she was welcomed and slept in her car when she had nowhere to go. But on January 14, Johnson fell in a “friend of a friend’s home,” which resulted in a broken wrist and a concussion.
She felt she had finally hit rock bottom, and she reached out to the Mission of Yahweh, a homeless shelter for women and children operating in Houston since 1961, for help.
Because Johnson had been in contact with the shelter since December, the mission gave Johnson a bed, despite not admitting walk-ins. So on January 14, Johnson joined the more than 130 individuals — 62 of which are children — at the shelter.
“Most of the people that I’m around are people who got knocked around by some catastrophe and now all of a sudden are scrambling to try to survive,” Johnson said. “And this is an avenue where there’s some place to live, there’s a roof over your head and they feed you. In exchange [at the Mission of Yahweh], you do chores. You don’t live there for free.”
Since being admitted, Johnson has been able to get the medical help she needed, has gone through a professional development boot camp with nonprofit WorkFaith Connection, and has gotten grants to go back to school to get her associate’s degree from Houston Community College.
“Right now, I’m living the dream,” Johnson said. “You know, there are so many ‘isms’ that are attached to homelessness, and somebody being homeless and their situation and where they live and how they live. But I have gotten the most amazing support — I found so much non-judgmental spiritual support here. I haven’t been able to breathe for a lot of years, I haven’t really been able to just breathe and feel safe and feel cared for and feel like everything was going to be okay,” Johnson said.
All across the Houston area, thousands of people just like Johnson are searching for the chance to break free from the cycle of homelessness. Visit the links below to learn more about homelessness and unemployment in our communities.