By the Numbers

An annual survey of Houstonians gives all of us reasons for concern—and for hope.

STEPHEN KLINEBERG IS A MAN WHO REVELS IN STATISTICS, finding a pleasure in them so intense it borders on the sensual. We sat at a small round table in his breakfast room as he led me through the arrays of numbers that he has worked each of the last fifteen years to produce. Pampered cats walked through the room in majestic silence and his beloved dog appeared from time to time to paw at his leg for a walk. Klineberg ignored them in favor of his statistics. These weren’t merely numbers on the page. Millions of lives and decisions lay behind them. They were stories. They were revelations! They were Houston!

Klineberg is a professor in the sociology department at Rice University. Beginning in 1982 he has conducted each year his Houston Area Survey, a bland title for what has now become, after fifteen surveys, a vast and unique archive of information whose importance extends far beyond Houston. It will be as valuable in the future to historians trying to understand what happened near the end of the twentieth century as it is today to anyone who is trying to understand what is happening this minute or about to happen soon. Everything is here—not only the usual age, ethnic background, education, and income but also information about almost every important social issue including crime, sex, race, religion, and even fears and aspirations. In 1996 Klineberg published an additional report, the equally blandly titled Houston’s Ethnic Communities, that included additional surveys in the black and Hispanic communities and the first extensive survey of Houston’s Asian population. Although there is a national survey of attitudes done at the University of Chicago every other year, there is no similar effort over such a long period of time for any other American city, perhaps for no other city in the world.

The survey first appeared in March 1982. (Originally financed by the Houston Post and currently by the Houston Chronicle and KHOU-TV, it remains independent and nonpolitical.) Although there were already signs that Houston’s boom of the seventies would soon end, few recognized them. The city was bursting with confidence and money. Klineberg thought he would be measuring the attitudes about the social costs of unfettered growth and asked about transportation, crime, pollution, economic outlook, and a variety of social issues. But just a few weeks after the survey appeared it was clear that something bad was happening in the economy. It was deflating rapidly, causing Klineberg to change his original assumptions. But, in succeeding surveys he kept asking

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