07/09/2012 09:20 am ET Updated Aug 21, 2012

Houston's Job Growth Success Renews Debate Over 'Texas Miracle'

If you need a job -- and any will do -- move to Houston. Buoyed in part by the oil industry, the sprawling metropolitan area created the most jobs from May 2011 to May 2012 of any major American city, according to Arizona State University's "Job Growth USA" study.

Houston was the last city to sink into recession and the first to climb out of it. But the nature of its success is a matter of debate, similar to one that ensued when Republican Gov. Rick Perry briefly competed in the 2012 presidential race: Is the Texas miracle really a miracle or just a symptom of inequality?

Houston added 88,000 jobs during the year that ended this past May. Some 21,000 of those positions were in health care compared with just 9,000 in the natural resources sector.

The city's economy, it turns out, has greatly diversified since the 1980s oil boom went bust and wiped out 1 of every 7 of the region's jobs.

"I wouldn't just leave it as something related to the energy sector," said Nathaniel Karp, the Houston-based chief U.S. economist at BBVA Compass. "We've had very good results in terms of foreign trade and health care."

Houston has also been helped by what it didn't have: a housing bubble. Perhaps to the chagrin of other states, Texas has stricter rules in place for home lending than many others.

The economy was not just "growing based on the housing boom or people retiring in Houston," Karp said. "So the fundamentals were much stronger before the crashes and throughout the crashes."

While the city remains prosperous, Houston is investing some of the rewards of its economic growth in ventures that defy its car-dependent image -- in a rapidly expanding light rail system (meant to make the city more walkable) as well as other sustainability measures.

Yet, city officials seeking to copy Houston's success should keep in mind that the area's development resulted from "the combination of some policies that have been explicitly placed by policymakers but also the outcome of market forces," said Stephen Klineberg, a professor of sociology at Rice University who for 30 years has tracked the region's growth through the Kinder Houston Area Survey.

"The lesson, I think, is let the private sector do what they do best, without necessarily interfering or trying to fast-forward or generate some sort of outcome that is good from some political perspective," he said.

Beneath all the job creation news, however, lie some trends less welcomed by policymakers. The success is a "deeply uneven tide of economic well-being where there are lots of very good jobs and lots of crappy jobs," Klineberg said. "You've really got to look at what kinds of jobs we're talking about."

Many of the new job opportunities, he noted, are highly bifurcated into positions for college graduates -- geologists, seismologists and neurologists -- and those for people with less education -- service and retail workers, hospital orderlies.

Klineberg ticked off downsides to the region's growth: Houston has the highest percentage of children without health insurance of any major U.S. city. For this year's survey, more people than ever before told him of having trouble buying groceries.

Still, Klineberg said, there must be something to admire in a city with just 7.3 percent unemployment, almost a full percentage point below the national rate. Part of the secret is the openness to immigration, he said. After years of Latino and Asian migration to the area, Houston's population is only 33 percent Anglo.

"All the growth has been non-Anglo growth," Klineberg said. "It's a story of immigration: Wherever immigrants go, the economy improves. And that's the irony of the anti-immigrant fervor in this nation."