The Black-White Happiness Gap: Large, but Narrowing

DESCRIPTIONPhoto: Seattle Municipal Archives Fair Housing Protest, 1964

There’s a lot of talk about race these days. But high-frequency chatter can obscure some of the more important longer-term trends shaping the lives of African-Americans.? Which is why?Betsey Stevenson and I turn to the data, in a new paper, “Subjective and Objective Indicators of Racial Happiness.”? The full version is?here, but David Leonhardt does a splendid job of?writing up the paper in today’s New York Times (plus don’t miss the?great graphic).

The big idea in the paper is to see what we can learn from subjective indicators-like happiness-that isn’t evident in objective indicators.

The usual objective indicators suggest that there’s been disappointingly little progress in narrowing racial gaps in employment or income since the 1970s.? And objective social indicators like educational attainment, incarceration rates or some measures of family structure tell an even grimmer story.? Basically, the Civil Rights movement happened, and then we ran out of puff about three or four decades ago.? It’s a thoroughly dispiriting set of facts, and according to the “taxi driver test” (i.e. talking with cabbies), this lack of progress isn’t widely understood.

But data on self-reported happiness add some nuance to this story.? Our research reveals three key findings:

  1. The black-white happiness gap in the 1970s was huge.? And as much as we know that measures of relative deprivation pointed to tough circumstances for blacks in the 1970s, the happiness gap was larger-much larger-than could be explained by these objective differences in circumstances.? Even the richest blacks were less happy than the poorest whites.? Here’s Leonhardt’s summary of this evidence:

    In the 1970s, a relatively affluent black person – one in a household making more than nine out of 10 other black households, or at the 90th percentile of the black income spectrum – was earning the same amount as someone at the 75th percentile of the white spectrum. That’s another way of saying blacks were making less than whites.

    But blacks were far less satisfied with their lives than could be explained by the income difference. People at the 90th percentile of the black income spectrum were as happy on average as people just below the 10th percentile of the white income spectrum, amazingly enough.

  2. The black-white happiness gap has narrowed substantially.? Again, here’s Leonhardt:

    Today, people at the 90th percentile of the black income spectrum are still making about as much as those at the 75th percentile of the white spectrum – but are now as happy on average as people in the dead middle, or the 50th percentile, of the white income spectrum. The income gap hasn’t shrunk much, but the happiness gap has.”

    In fact, the rise in the happiness of black Americans is as dramatic of a rise in happiness as you are likely to see in this sort of data.? This has occurred despite very little progress in the usual objective indicators.

  3. Even as the black-white happiness gap has narrowed by about two-fifths, it remains large.? Much of this remaining gap can be “explained”-in a statistical sense-by the different life circumstances of blacks and whites. So today, the objective and subjective indicators tell a more consistent story.

What’s driving these dramatic changes in happiness?? Well, we don’t know exactly what the reason is, but:

The most obvious 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.

I think Kerwin is right, although this is based on gut, rather than firm evidence.? And so the next stage in this research program is to link those personal indignities to measures of well-being.? The social science challenge here is a measurement one: How best to get a handle on the evolution of day-to-day racism?

For more on this, also see?Julia Baird‘s splendid Newsweek column, which emphasizes the gender dimension of our research.


Here's another potential explanation: perhaps money has become more effective at bringing happiness, for whatever reason. This would mean richer people would see more substantial increases in happiness in the past four decades than poor people, so the happiest and richest blacks would place higher relative to poor whites than they previously would have.


The decline of racism could increase blacks' happiness in a few different ways. It reduces how often they are the direct targets of day-to-day racism, as Kerwin says, but it could also change their broader beliefs and attitudes. If the decline in racism has led blacks to be more likely to believe that they control their own fate, that they have the opportunity to be successful, that society is relatively fair and not rigged against them, that they are an accepted & respected part of society, and so on, those changes in outlook could be responsible for part of the increase in happiness. There might even be data that you could find on those sorts of beliefs in a source like the GSS.

Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

Did the successful Obama Presidential Campaign translate into a quantifiable black happiness gain?
I think it is at least 1.54 Happiness Units(HU) +/- 0.15 .

I quarrel with the abiltiy to measure a subjective variable like happiness. Lincoln said, "Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be."


While I do agree that the plight of our black brothers and sisters has improved, I am also reminded that a corporation will do it's best to pay you as little as they have to to retain you...and not so much that you can afford to retire.

Very simply, just enough was done, I imagine, to create a level of acceptance and satisfaction among most blacks that makes them "happy" enough to not march in the streets and hold boycotts.

It's still "them" vs. "us" (I'm white, by the way). While Wall Street gets rich, they will only throw a big enough bone to others to ensure that the have-nots don't come marching into the gated communities of the haves.


We are much happier that we don't get lynched everyday. When (not if) it happens (James Byrd), there now may be a trial and even a conviction. When the bar is so low it's hard not to go up.
Also, the terms, in this case, happiness, are defined (once again) by the dominant culture. Does the subculture define happiness in the same way? If you give us all the same "things" that white people have, it still won't make us white.


It strikes me (having travelled the world and living in a multi-cultural society outside the US) that it may fundamentally be a statistician's or economist's conceit to think that we can cleanly divide people by race into neat buckets.

Perhaps that's what has truly changed or stretched from the 1970's: the definition of "Black".


Drill Baby Drill, just because something is subjective doesn't mean you can't measure it; it's subjective whether people find Sarah Palin attractive, but we can still quantify how many people do, by asking them.

Happiness is a harder one to quantify, and some of the proxies to it could be polluted - eg if you look at % of people diagnosed with mental disorders then you could fall victim to a sheriff who decides all black people have to be thrown into the asylum; if you look at suicide rate per capita then you might have problems with reporting that due to cultural norms preventing suicide from being identified as such, and so on and so on. But that doesn't mean that you can't form at least an approximate answer to this.

I suppose you may have issue with financial measurements being used to determine a happiness index, but I think it's safe to assume that while you can be rich and unhappy, it's easier to be unhappy when you're poor.


Jim Bean

Perhaps you should ask black males if they are happy being marginalized, economically excluded and socially demonized in the usa. I am sure that you will find a big difference between the answers of black males and females in regards to how "happy" they are in the USA.


Decreasing white happiness could also account for a narrowing between the two groups' self-reported happiness. What does self-reported white happiness look like relative to the same in 1965?