Scholar links poverty and optimism

By EMILY MCDONALD | September 28, 2017

Carol Graham, a professor at the University of Maryland College Park School of Public Health, discussed her book Happiness for All?: Unequal Hopes and Lives in the Pursuit of the American Dream at Barnes & Noble on Thursday, Sept. 21.

Graham is a fellow at the Brookings Institution, an organization based in Washington, D.C. that brings together experts on public policy issues to conduct research and make policy recommendations.

In Happiness for All? she addresses the income gap in the U.S. and other developed countries, stating that the working class is often frustrated by federal economic policies.

Through her studies on the income gap, she also touches on other topics, including racial divides, education and mass incarceration. In her book, she theorizes that increases in this gap have led to a rising difference between the beliefs and aspirations of high and low-income earners, which she terms the “optimism gap.”

According to Graham, she was drawn to these subjects because they are not widely explored in contemporary economics.

“I’m kind of a crazy outlier in the world of economics,” she said. “I’ve been working on well-being and happiness since 2000... I’ve done a ton of work on poverty around the world, but this is really my first big project on the U.S.”

Graham said that once she began researching for her book, her findings surprised her. For example, she discovered that people in developing countries like Peru were typically more optimistic about their futures than those in the U.S.

Though she began her research thinking that her work would center on inequality and the cost of poverty in the U.S., her discoveries altered the book’s focus.

“I ended up finding a story of not just inequality but of desperation among certain cohorts, premature mortality, very large differences across race and very large differences across place,” she said.

In addition to analyzing the levels of optimism and well-being among Americans, her work explores the limited accessibility of the American Dream.

She explained that low levels of optimism and well-being in the U.S. can be traced back to both traditional American ideals and high levels of inequality.

“In the U.S., there’s something about what I call the high cost of being poor in the land of the dream that’s different,” she said.

According to Graham, 62 percent of Americans think that their children will have a lower quality of life than they actually do. She compared this to South American countries such as Chile, citing that only 13 percent of Chileans share that belief.

Graham explained the potential risks of a society with overwhelmingly low levels of optimism.

“People who believe in their future are much more likely to invest in it, invest in their health, invest in their education, invest in their children’s health and education, and people who don’t have hope for the future are much less likely to. So you see a perpetuation of inequality,” she said.

She also remarked that this crisis is unique to the U.S. and does not happen to the same extent in other parts of the world.

“There are remarkably consistent patterns in the determination of well-being, life satisfaction and happiness around the world,” Graham said. “The U.S. has some unique causes. One is just our exceptionally high rates of inequality and our very limited safety nets, including health insurance. And our social safety nets tend to stigmatize the poor... It’s not an easy country to fall behind in.”

Graham linked her studies to the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, which she described as a demonstration of frustration, hopelessness and anger across the country.

According to Graham, the U.S. is the only wealthy country where mortality rates are rising.

“What’s even more stark is that the increase in mortality is being driven by preventable deaths in middle-aged uneducated whites,” she said. “Mortality rates for blacks and Hispanics are continuing to move more gradually up. Their level is still a little lower than whites, but they’re going up.”

She blamed societal problems on low levels of hope and happiness, saying that the absence of optimism and life satisfaction led to “terrifying” results.

“We’re looking at a social crisis of proportions we don’t understand, because a lot of people have lost hope,” Graham said. “At the same time, we’re observing and can learn from populations that have traditionally been deprived and have maintained hope and resilience, and that’s an important lesson, and we have to understand how to get that back.”

Baltimore resident Laura Farner went to the book talk because she heard Graham’s recent interview on NPR. She felt that the information in Graham’s book could foster necessary social change.

“That would be my hope, that we would look at that information and go ‘Hey, what are we doing wrong here, and what could we change?’”

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