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Subjective and Objective Indicators of Racial Progress


  • Betsey Stevenson
  • Justin Wolfers


Progress in closing differences in many objective outcomes for blacks relative to whites has slowed, and even worsened, over the past 3 decades. However, over this period the racial gap in happiness has shrunk. In the early 1970s data revealed much lower levels of subjective well-being among blacks relative to whites. Investigating various measures of well-being, we find that the well-being of blacks has increased both absolutely and relative to that of whites. While a racial gap in well-being remains, two-fifths of the gap has closed, and these gains have occurred despite little progress in closing other racial gaps such as those in income, employment, and education. Much of the current racial gap in happiness can be explained by differences in the objective conditions of the lives of black and white Americans. Thus, making further progress will likely require progress in closing racial gaps in objective circumstances.

Suggested Citation

  • Betsey Stevenson & Justin Wolfers, 2012. "Subjective and Objective Indicators of Racial Progress," The Journal of Legal Studies, University of Chicago Press, vol. 41(2), pages 459-493.
  • Handle: RePEc:ucp:jlstud:doi:10.1086/669963

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Blanchflower, David G. & Oswald, Andrew J., 2004. "Well-being over time in Britain and the USA," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 88(7-8), pages 1359-1386, July.
    2. Angus Deaton, 2008. "Income, Health, and Well-Being around the World: Evidence from the Gallup World Poll," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 22(2), pages 53-72, Spring.
    3. Betsey Stevenson & Justin Wolfers, 2007. "Marriage and Divorce: Changes and their Driving Forces," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 21(2), pages 27-52, Spring.
    4. Donohue, John J, III & Heckman, James, 1991. "Continuous versus Episodic Change: The Impact of Civil Rights Policy on the Economic Status of Blacks," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 29(4), pages 1603-1643, December.
    5. repec:pri:cheawb:deaton_income_health_and_wellbeing_around_the_world_evidence_%20from_gall is not listed on IDEAS
    6. Easterlin, Richard A., 1995. "Will raising the incomes of all increase the happiness of all?," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 27(1), pages 35-47, June.
    7. Franks, Peter & Muennig, Peter & Lubetkin, Erica & Jia, Haomiao, 2006. "The burden of disease associated with being African-American in the United States and the contribution of socio-economic status," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 62(10), pages 2469-2478, May.
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    Cited by:

    1. Blanchflower, David G. & Oswald, Andrew J., 2017. "Unhappiness and Pain in Modern America: A Review Essay, and Further Evidence, on Carol Graham's Happiness for All?," IZA Discussion Papers 11184, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    2. Vivekinan Ashok & Ilyana Kuziemko & Ebonya Washington, 2015. "Support for Redistribution in an Age of Rising Inequality: New Stylized Facts and Some Tentative Explanations," NBER Working Papers 21529, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    3. Owen, Ann & Phillips, Anne, 2013. "Education, income, and the distribution of happiness," MPRA Paper 49387, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    4. Blanchflower, David G. & Oswald, Andrew J, 2018. "Unhappiness and Pain in Modern America: A Review Essay, and Further Evidence, on Carol Graham’s Happiness for All?," The Warwick Economics Research Paper Series (TWERPS) 1153, University of Warwick, Department of Economics.
    5. Abel Brodeur & Sarah Flèche, 2017. "Neighbors' Income, Public Goods and Well-Being," Working Papers 1719E, University of Ottawa, Department of Economics.
    6. Ann L. Owen & Anne Phillips, 2016. "How Does the Life Satisfaction of the Poor, Least Educated, and Least Satisfied Change as Average Life Satisfaction Increases?," Journal of Happiness Studies, Springer, vol. 17(6), pages 2389-2406, December.
    7. Arne Risa Hole & Anita Ratcliffe, 2015. "The impact of the London bombings on the wellbeing of young Muslims," Working Papers 2015002, The University of Sheffield, Department of Economics.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • D6 - Microeconomics - - Welfare Economics
    • I32 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Welfare, Well-Being, and Poverty - - - Measurement and Analysis of Poverty
    • J1 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demographic Economics
    • J7 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Labor Discrimination
    • K1 - Law and Economics - - Basic Areas of Law


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