David Leonhardt reports in today’s New York Times on a new study suggesting that African Americans are happier today than they were in the 1970s, while whites are pretty much just as happy now as they were then.
This is despite the fact that economic inequality between blacks and whites hasn’t improved much, if at all, over the last four decades—the black unemployment rate today is about twice the white rate, same as in 1975. But according to the (not yet published) study, authored by University of Pennsylvania economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, something seems to be going on here that’s about more than money. Leonhardt writes:
Ms. Stevenson and Mr. Wolfers have a good way of making this point. 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.
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.
So if the happiness gains aren’t due to economic gains, what could explain them?
Leonhardt suggests that the decline of overt racism could provide one answer. He quotes Kerwin Charles, a University of Chicago economist, who notes that well into the 1970s, blacks faced “a vast array of personal indignities that led to unhappiness”—indignities that are no longer as common, or as acceptable.
Still, Leonhardt points out that racism is still very much with us—and he highlights what’s truly at stake in the fight for racial equality:
A rich vein of research has shown that racial discrimination remains a part of daily life, albeit a reduced one. To take just one example, an experiment found that résumés with typically black names lead to fewer job interviews than similar résumés with different names. Combine the discrimination with the toll of bad schools and broken families, and you end up with those huge lingering black-white gaps.
Closing the gaps would clearly help the economy—moving families out of poverty, freeing up talent and, in the long run, probably lifting growth. But these wouldn’t be the only benefits. There would also be some on which it’s hard to put a price.