A recent study by two University of Pennsylvania economists finds that black Americans have become, on average, much happier than they were 35 years ago, and that whites have maintained about the same level of happiness. The study, titled "Subjective and Objective Indicators of Racial Progress," also finds that although the relative happiness of the two groups have changed, the income gap between whites and blacks has remained consistent. Why? What does it mean?
Why Economists Traditionally Associate Happiness With Wealth The New York Times' David Leonhardt explains, "Money clearly has a big effect on the mind, just as it has a big effect on health, education and almost everything else. The rich report being happier than the middle class on average, and the middle class report being happier than the poor. The income and wealth gaps between whites and blacks, in turn, explain a big part of the happiness gap." However, "[This] new study is part of a deluge of happiness research by economists, who are discovering what the rest of us have long known: money isn’t everything."
- Happiness Gain Is Much More Than Economic UPenn economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers write in their paper's abstract, "Subjective well-being data reveal that blacks are less happy than are whites. However, much of this racial gap in happiness has closed over the past 35 years. We investigate measures of subjective well-being that indicate that the well-being of blacks has increased both absolutely and relative to whites. These changes in well-being are found across various datasets and measures of subjective well-being. However the gains in happiness are concentrated among women and those living in the south. While the opportunities and achievements of blacks have improved over this period, the happiness gains far exceed that which can be attributed to these objective improvements."
- Drop in Racism Explains Happiness Increase David Leonhardt writes, "The most obvious [cause of the shift] is the decrease — though certainly not the elimination — in day-to-day racism. 'The decline in prejudice has been astounding,' says Kerwin Charles, a University of Chicago economist who has studied discrimination. Well into the 1970s, blacks faced 'a vast array of personal indignities that led to unhappiness,' he noted. Today, those indignities are unacceptable in many areas of American life. ... It isn’t hard to see how the decline in discrimination improves people’s lives, above and beyond their pay."
- Actually, It's Probably Mostly Economic Think Progress's Matthew Yglesias says the UPenn economists may be mistaken when they say that the happiness narrowing between whites and blacks has outpaced the economic narrowing. "A very large share of the income gains during this time period have accrued to a very small number of people. ... Insofar as the super-elite is a disproportionately white group of people, this is going to drag the per capita white income upwards without doing much of anything for the typical white household. Consequently, you can easily imagine that there’s been a trend toward greater racial equality among the vast majority of the population even while a tiny group of white people has pulled away from the pack. "
- Whites and Blacks More Economically Equal Mother Jones' Kevin Drum concurs with Yglesias. "I took a look a the Census Bureau's median data for black men, which would correct for the effect of a small number of super-rich people skewing the data. Sure enough, if you look at medians, then black income has gone from 40% lower than white income to 28% lower than white income." Some of this remaining gap may be explained in part by the racial gap for "hours worked" and the fact that "black unemployment remains astronomical, especially among the young."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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