The unhappy states of America: Despite an improving economy, Americans are glum

Written by Heather Long via The Washington Post on 3/30/18

The U.S. economy looks pretty good by most measures: Jobs are plentiful, growth is picking up, prices aren't rising too quickly, and unemployment is on track this year to hit the lowest level since 1969. But Americans aren't happy.

In fact, Americans are more glum now than they were during the Great Recession, according to the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index. While most Americans do feel the economy is improving, the data shows, they don't think their overall well-being is going up. It could be a warning sign that Americans are concerned about more than “the economy, stupid.”

The Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index started in 2008 as a way to assess how Americans are doing beyond the usual financial and economic metrics. Every year, Gallup interviews more than 160,000 adults in the United States and asks them about their sense of purpose, their social relationships, their financial security, their health and their connectedness to their community.

[ U.S. economy grew at a pace very close to Trump’s 3 percent goal at end of last year ]

In a surprise to the researchers, 2017 turned out to be the worst year for well-being on record. The overall index score was even lower than during the financial crisis, and, for the first time in the decade that Gallup has done this poll, no state in the country showed a statistically significant increase in well-being.

“It was a real eyepopper for us,” said Dan Witters, Gallup research director for the Well-Being Index. “What we found was an unprecedented decline in well-being nationally.”

The unhappiness showed up across the country: Twenty-one states had statistically significant declines in well-being in 2017, compared with 2016. It was “by far the most states we've seen drop in a single year,” Witters said, and the decline appeared in almost every region, except the Rocky Mountain states.

What's driving the gloominess now is very different from what Gallup and Sharecare, a health and wellness company, saw during the Great Recession. In 2009, a year when 15 states showed declines in well-being, money and financial worries were at the top of the list. Today, emotional and psychological factors dominate. People are not content in their jobs and relationships, and depression diagnoses are at an all-time high in the United States.

Some blame politics and polarization for causing people to feel more anxiety and bitterness toward work colleagues and family. There's a constant narrative of division in the country between Republicans and Democrats, gun-rights supporters and gun-control advocates, the religious and the nonreligious, and so on. And there are near daily headlines about chaos in the White House.

“I think one reason people may be anxious is because the government itself seems to be in disarray,” said Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. “We don’t know what is going to happen next. There’s no clear path toward stabilizing either the country or the world.”

The index also breaks down its findings by race, income and gender. Almost every demographic group dropped in well-being in 2017 — except for wealthy white men. Women, African Americans, Hispanics and lower-income households (those earning less than $48,000 a year) all saw substantial drops in their perception of their well-being.

[ American workers are already lonely. Here come the robots. ]

Not surprisingly, Democrats also showed far bigger declines than Republicans or independents. “Switching out the person in the Oval Office can and does have an effect on well-being,” Witters said.

The findings in the Gallup poll are similar to trends showing up in other studies and surveys. While consumer confidence is at the highest level since 2004, polls that look at broader issues than income and spending power don't appear as rosy.

Loneliness is now a serious societal problem that's affecting health and well-being: Forty percent of American adults now say they are lonely, double the share of people who said that in the 1980s, according to AARP. Some people are even struggling to feel connected to their work colleagues.

Then there are growing concerns about the state of the nation and the world. Every year, Chapman University asks a random sample of more than 1,200 U.S. adults about their greatest fears. In 2017, the No. 1 fear was corrupt government officials followed by the overall state of health care and worries about pollution. There was also a significant jump last year in fears about the United States getting into another world war.

“The 2017 list of fears clearly reflects political unrest and uncertainty in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as president,” the researchers concluded.

Financial fears also ranked highly in the Chapman poll. In 2017, half of Americans said one of their top fears was “not having enough money for the future,” a reminder that even if people have jobs now, they remain anxious because they aren't sure how long that will last.

“People are feeling more economically insecure, even if they have a job and a salary,” said Rachel Schneider, co-author of “The Financial Diaries: How American Families Cope in a World of Uncertainty.” “I think it's a combination of knowing you're responsible for your own retirement, knowing you're responsible for your own health care and knowing that you don't have any significant job security.”

Despite the improving economy, the fear of running out of money down the road jumped nearly 10 points from the year before, and it was followed closely by fears of “high medical bills.”

There's a growing push from academics and even Wall Street bankers, such as hedge fund billionaire Ray Dalio, to get politicians to look beyond the national statistics on jobs and economic. Those numbers aren't painting the full picture of how Americans are doing, let alone feeling, experts say.

“The unemployment rate may be down, but it doesn't measure how many people don't feel confident they will get the hours they need or a full-time job with benefits,” Schneider said. “There's also real fear about how fast the world is changing and how stressful it is.”