Civic Vitality Overview

Houston has always been alive with opportunity. It’s the town of the big chance. Where anyone who works hard can get ahead, and anyone who works hard and works smart can get way ahead. A place where no one will get in your way. We know this in our gut, the same way we know, or think we know, so many other things about Houston. We know that it’s friendly, and open to new ideas and new people. Even people who are very much unlike us. We know Houston because we know its people. We’re engaged with them. We’re vitally connected.

When Center for Houston’s Future set out to study Civic Vitality – to move beyond gut instinct and figure out what could really be measured – we had a few preconceptions. Some thought it has chiefly to do with voting. Others suggested volunteer activity or social capital or income disparity. Some wanted to consider neighborliness, connectedness, and life in public spaces. Still others focused on access — to information (through newspapers, social media, libraries, television, Internet), to voting sites, to a living wage.

With the help of three focus groups, the Center considered nearly five dozen potential indicators for study, and ultimately narrowed our purview to four topic areas, each of which can serve as both a field of study and a community aspiration:

The Civic Vitality Community Indicator Report examines the way people participate in political life, looks at how strong communities are created as neighbors support each other and participate in formal and informal social contact, studies the way disparities in income can exclude some people from full participation in civic life, and surveys how people donate their money and volunteer their time.

Political Participation in our region could be more vigorous. Registration among our citizens who are old enough to vote is about in line with the national average of 67%. But when it comes to actually voting, only Dallas has lower levels of turnout among the major U.S. metropolitan areas that were studied. We see turnout above 55% in presidential elections, but for midterm elections turnout hovers around 40%. And it’s been ten years since more than 15% of eligible voters participated in the contest to elect a mayor of Houston. No evidence suggests that our poor electoral performance is likely to improve, especially for local elections.

Many think their vote won’t make a difference, and in too many cases, they’re right. More than 30% of the federal, state, and local races run in Harris County between 2010 and 2014 weren’t even contested. And more than 80% of nonjudicial Harris County elections were either uncontested or uncompetitive (decided by more than a 10% margin). But there’s good news on this front. Fifteen years ago those uncontested or uncompetitive elections tallied above 90%.

Whatever the reasons for opting out, more political involvement would be better for our region. A robust body of research demonstrates that communities with high voter participation tend to enjoy heightened levels of social capital. Voter participation is associated with a more responsive and less ideologically polarized government. As voting rates increase, local governments are more likely to address issues of high importance to citizens, and political polarization decreases. The more people who vote, the healthier the democracy.

It’s not that folks here don’t care. The Strong Communities section clearly demonstrates a variety of qualities that contribute to building what’s called social capital. We love our families, and enjoy spending time with them. Nearly two-thirds of us have dinner with our families every day, and more than three-quarters of us socialize with family and friends at least a few times a week.

We appreciate our neighbors, once we get to know them. Almost 60% of us exchange favors with neighbors, and compared to other metro regions, Houston has one of the highest percentages of respondents who do favors for their neighbors every day.

We’re more careful with those we don’t know. The fact that two-thirds of us say you can’t be too careful when it comes to trusting people in general suggests we like to take the measure of strangers before welcoming them into our fellowship. And speaking of fellowship, our favorite group associations are religious in nature.

The Social Inclusion section looks into what has become part of the national dialogue in recent months, income disparity – or as it’s often styled, income inequality. Income disparity in Houston over the past three decades has been most evident in the shrinking of the middle class. High levels of income disparity can limit opportunity, restrict civic engagement, and put a lid on intergenerational mobility. The good news is that income inequality, after more than 30 years of increase here, has dropped measurably in the last two years, likely due to our regional employment boom. Among other major metro areas, Houston currently enjoys the lowest level of income inequality.

On the other hand, residential segregation by income remains a persistent concern. Among other issues, high levels of income segregation have a negative impact on the number of children who attend college, and likely contribute to high infant mortality and preterm birth rates. According to some studies, Houston is the most income-segregated metro area in the nation.

Philanthropy & Volunteerism offer a measure of how we look out for each other. Higher levels of participation and giving provide the channels through which individuals can be recruited for good deeds, encouraging greater attention to others’ welfare. In addition to bolstering community organizations and those in need, volunteerism encourages greater civic engagement across an array of areas.

Among major metropolitan areas, Houston boasts one of the highest giving rates: 3.2% of income, behind only Atlanta and Dallas. But the news is mixed. Tallying up the number of nonprofits from one region to the next, the Houston MSA winds up with the lowest number of nonprofits per capita: 3.2 nonprofits per 1,000 residents. That may be related to our region’s relative youth when compared to older urban centers such as Boston and Philadelphia. And the low number may not reflect the overall effectiveness of a region’s nonprofit sector. Donate to the Center for Houston’s Future

Meanwhile, adults in the region volunteered 122 million hours in 2013, collectively valued at $2.8 billion. Forming closer attachments to their community through service, volunteers are more likely to continue contributing and are twice as likely to donate to charity as those who do not raise their hands.

Ultimately, Civic Vitality boils down to how well we look after one another to nourish and sustain our community. Above all, it relies on participation. Engagement. People are more likely to engage if they have opportunity. Opportunity to make a decent living. Opportunity to own a home and educate their children and save for retirement. Opportunity to get ahead. Opportunities realized build a stake in the community and a stake in the future.