Sunday, July 30, 2017

The High Costs of Being Poor in America


voxeu  |  Divisions in the US go well beyond the income arena, and in ways that are particularly worrisome. In a new book, I document trends in inequality from the perspective of well-being, starting with standard metrics but also exploring how these relate to non-economic aspects of welfare, such as happiness, stress, anger, and, most importantly, hope (Graham 2017).

Hope is an important channel driving people’s willingness to invest in the future. My early research on well-being work highlights its particular importance for people with less means, for whom making such investments requires a greater sacrifice of current consumption than it does for the rich (Graham et al. 2004). In addition to widening gaps in opportunity, the prosperity gap in the US has led to rising inequality in beliefs, hopes, and aspirations, with those who are left behind economically the least hopeful and the least likely to invest in their futures.

There are, indeed, two Americas. Those at the top of the income distribution (including the top of the middle class) increasingly lead separate lives, with barriers to reaching the upper class being very real, if not explicit (Reeves 2017). Those at the top have high levels of hope for the future and make investments in themselves and in their children’s health, education, and knowledge more generally. Those at the bottom have much lower levels of hope and they tend to live day by day, consumed with daily struggles, high levels of stress, and poor health.

There are many markers of the differences across these two Americas, ranging from education levels and job quality to marriage and incarceration rates to life expectancy. Indeed, the starkest evidence of this lack of faith in the future is the marked increase in premature deaths – driven largely but not only by an increase in preventable deaths (such as via suicide and drug over-dose) among middle-aged uneducated whites, as described by Case and Deaton (2017).

There are even differences in the words that these two Americas use. Common words in wealthy America reflect investments in health, knowledge acquisition, and the future: iPads and Baby Bjorns, foam rollers and baby joggers, cameras, and exotic travel destinations such as Machu Picchu. The words that are common in poor America – such as hell, stress, diabetes, guns, video games, and fad diets – reflect short-time horizons, struggles, and lack of hope (Leonhardt 2015).

Based on detailed Gallup data, we find stark differences across people, races, and places in the US. Remarkably, poor minorities – and blacks in particular – are much more hopeful than poor whites. Poor blacks are three times as likely to be a point higher on the ten-point optimism scale than are poor whites, while Hispanics are about one and a half times more likely than poor whites. Poor blacks are also half as likely to experience stress – a significant marker of ill-being – on a daily basis as are poor whites, while poor Hispanics are about two-thirds as likely.