Houston has grown by 1.5 million people and over 500,000 jobs since 2000, eclipsing all other U.S. metropolitan areas in the magnitude of its recent growth. With over 6 million residents, it’s among the most diverse of the nation’s 99 largest metropolitan areas: 40 percent white, 35 percent Hispanic, 17 percent black, and 7 percent Asian. Over one-fifth of its residents were born abroad—higher than all the other top-10 metro areas except Los Angeles and Miami.
It’s also a young region, with only 9 percent of residents age 65 or over. And as the large millennial generation began passing into its 20s and 30s, reducing the under-20 population nationwide, Houston continued to add children and youth. Unlike New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles—all of which experienced declines in their under-20 population between 2000 and 2012—Houston gained over 360,000 children and youth.
Diversity, growth, and youth all add up to huge opportunity for Houston, but also come with challenges. Houston’s 2012 poverty rate of 16 percent exceeded the national average. And Houston has high rates of poverty even among those working full time. Levels of college completion are lower than in many other large metro areas, 17 percent of residents cannot speak English very well, and many of the foreign-born residents are not citizens. Child care is expensive. And transportation in the sprawling region is costly and time-consuming.
Houston is unusual in all these respects. But it isn’t alone. Instead, it’s one of 15 fast-growth metro areas that account for over half of the nation’s job growth and three-quarters of the nation’s growth in children and youth since 2000. These metro areas—Dallas, Austin, Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh, Orlando, Sacramento, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, Boise, Denver, Colorado Springs, and Albuquerque—all share some or many of Houston’s distinctions. They, too, are young and diverse, with fast job growth but low levels of college education and economic mobility and high levels of segregation.
These metros account for over half the growth in young people over the past decade. So developing effective strategies for connecting low-income people with economic opportunities in these metros is critical to the future prosperity of the whole country. But many of the “place-based” initiatives traditionally funded by foundations and the federal government evolved to respond to the economic conditions and barriers facing communities in big cities of the Northeast and Midwest.
Local solutions for the South and the Intermountain West
We’ve recently gotten to know an organization called Neighborhood Centers, Inc., which is developing and testing new strategies that reflect the realities of Houston’s geography, demographics, and economy. Neighborhood Centers doesn’t limit its work to tightly defined neighborhood boundaries nor does it aspire to transform poor neighborhoods into mixed-income communities. The communities in which it works are more loosely defined and dynamic, and Neighborhood Centers views them as launchpads for low-income families, whether these families stay in place or move to other neighborhoods in the region.
Lessons learned from the work of Neighborhood Centers can help inform the next generation of strategies in other rapidly changing metros of the South and Southwest—metros that represent our country’s future.