America is not a very happy place, and it is getting less so. Our downward trend in happiness precedes the election of Donald Trump, but sadly, there’s little in his agenda that would reverse this trend. On the contrary.
That’s because a boost in economic growth, though nice, wouldn’t get to where the trouble is. Per capita income is a factor in subjective well-being; make no mistake. However, it’s only one of six factors listed in the 2017 World Happiness Report, released by the United Nations.
The other five are life expectancy, social support, personal freedom, generosity of donations and perceived corruption in government and business. America’s scores in these areas are all headed downhill.
“America’s crisis is, in short, a social crisis, not an economic crisis,” economist Jeffrey Sachs wrote in reviewing the report.
The happiest country is Norway, followed by Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Finland, the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia and Sweden in a tie. America’s 14th-place finish marks an ongoing deterioration. In 2007, the United States was the third-happiest country on the Cantril ladder.
Not much of a surprise, given the heartbreaking stories of rising rates of suicide among middle-aged whites, alcoholism and drug overdoses. And we know that a per-person income number, however handsome, is an average that can hide gross disparities.
“Income inequality has reached astronomical levels,” Sachs writes, “with the top 1 percent of American households taking home almost all of the gains in economic growth in recent decades, while the share of the bottom 50 percent plummets.”
The ills plaguing many of our Rust Belt and rural communities stem from increasing social isolation, as well as deteriorating economic status (especially painful when comparing with others). Struggling rural and factory towns are suffering losses in people, with their brightest and most accomplished children first to leave.
One cannot see how tax cuts aimed at the rich, paid for with cuts in federal social support programs — health coverage, above all — are going to add much joy to 99 percent of the population. Now, one could make the Trump/Paul Ryan argument that tax cuts would boost economic growth, the benefits of which would trickle down to ordinary folk.
There’s something to the notion that lower taxes can spur investment, but the questions remain: By how much? And who would benefit? George W. Bush oversaw the most ambitious tax cuts of his generation, and he left office with the American economy in a smoking ruin.
Government spending on such things as infrastructure and health care also stimulates the economy. In some of the most hurting parts of America, health care is the one bright economic light. What will happen if Trump and his allies go through with their plan to pull billions of federal dollars out of health care?
Using the happiness report’s measuring device, Sachs calculated how much economic growth would be needed to offset America’s recent decline in social support networks. To maintain the 2006 level of happiness, per-person GDP would have to rise to $82,000 from the current $53,000.
To offset the decline in happiness caused by deterioration of all four social variables (social support, freedom, donation, corruption), Sachs figured the per capita GDP would have to rise to $133,000 from the current $53,000. For comparison purposes, note that per-person GDP in the happier Nordic countries is $47,000, lower than ours.
But Americans don’t really need number crunchers to tell them that they’re feeling less happy with each passing year. What they need are political leaders who flatter them less but deliver policies that truly enhance their sense of well-being. Happily, Americans have the power to replace Trump and Ryan with leaders who can and will.
Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. Email her at email@example.com.