Unhappiness in white America

Carol Graham writes: Everyone is struggling to understand why so many whites — including many who are not suffering economically — are rallying to the angry words and fearful music of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Meanwhile, blacks and other minorities are sticking with the status-quo incrementalism of Hillary Clinton. It’s an odd juxtaposition, but there’s an explanation, one with far-reaching ramifications. A wide and growing optimism gap has opened between poor and middle-class whites and their counterparts of other races — and the former are the congenital pessimists.

My research finds deep divisions in our country – not just in terms of income and opportunity, but in terms of hopes and dreams. The highest costs of being poor in the U.S. are not in the form of material goods or basic services, as in developing countries, but in the form of unhappiness, stress, and lack of hope. What is most surprising, though, is that the most desperate groups are not minorities who have traditionally been discriminated against, but poor and near-poor whites. And of all racial groups in poverty, blacks are the most optimistic about their futures.

Based on a question in a Gallup survey asking respondents where they expected their life satisfaction to be in five years (on a 0-10 point scale), I find that among the poor, the group that scores the highest is poor blacks. The least optimistic group by far is poor whites. The average score of poor blacks is large enough to eliminate the difference in optimism about the future between being poor and being middle class (e.g. removing the large negative effect of poverty), and they are almost three times more likely to be higher up on the optimism scale than are poor whites. Poor Hispanics are also more optimistic than poor whites, but the gaps between their scores are not as large as those between blacks and whites.

In terms of stress — a marker of ill-being — there are, again, large differences across races. Poor whites are the most stressed group and are 17.8 percent more likely to experience stress in the previous day than middle-class whites. In contrast, middle-class blacks are 49 percent less likely to experience stress than middle-class whites, and poor blacks are 52 percent less likely to experience stress than poor whites (e.g. their odds of experiencing stress are roughly half those of poor whites.

Why does this matter? Individuals with high levels of well-being have better outcomes; they believe in their futures and invest in them. In contrast, those without hope for their futures typically do not make such investments. Remarkably, the poor in the U.S. (on average) are less likely to believe that hard work will get them ahead than are the poor in Latin America. [Continue reading…]

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