Using Well-Being Metrics to Assess Social Well-Being and Ill-Being: Lessons from Rising Mortality Rates in the United States
Richard Easterlin inspired the use of well-being metrics in economics. This chapter highlights their potential to help us identify and understand social ill-being. The 2016 election in the United States exposed unhappiness and frustration among poor and uneducated whites. The starkest marker is the rise in preventable deaths and suicides among the middle aged of this cohort. In contrast, minorities have higher levels of optimism, and their life expectancies continue to rise. Low-income respondents display the largest differences, with poor blacks by far the most optimistic, and poor whites the least. African Americans and Hispanics also report higher life satisfaction and lower stress than poor whites, with the gaps peaking in middle age. We explored the association between our well-being data and mortality trends. The absence of hope among less than college-educated whites matches the trends in premature mortality among 35–64 year olds. Reported pain, reliance on disability insurance, low labor force participation, and differential levels of resilience across races all have mediating effects in the desperation-mortality associations. We explore the role of place, which is also associated with the well-being trends for different cohorts. The matches between indicators of well-being and mortality suggest that the former could serve as warning indicators in the future, rather than waiting for rising mortality to sound the alarms.
We thank Andrew Oswald and Eddie Lawlor, as well as Alice Rivlin, Alan Blinder, Belle Sawhill, Bill Galston, Mike O’Hanlon, Bradley Hardy and other participants at a Brookings “restoring the middle class” seminar, for very helpful comments. They also appreciate the suggestions of an anonymous reviewer. Graham acknowledges the generous support from a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation pioneer award, and Pinto from a flagship fellowship at UMD.
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