Fun with the Gallup survey on “standard of living”

In economics, the term “standard of living” generally corresponds to something like real income.  A recent Gallup survey asked people about their standard of living, and Matt Yglesias and Karl Smith drew some inferences that seem to go way beyond the data.  Here’s Matt Yglesias:

What you’re seeing here is that being unemployed or being seriously poor is terrible. We ought to be working like crazy to reduce the number of people in that position.

Karl Smith makes this observation:

Losing your job is on par with losing your marriage in terms of life satisfaction. Being poor doesn’t trail far behind. These are tragedies of human suffering and they deserve our attention.

Just so I don’t get accused of insensitivity, I don’t doubt that being poor and/or unemployed is very unpleasant.  So I’m not really questioning their conclusions, or even their policy proposals (I also favor progressive taxes, monetary stimulus, etc.)   I just don’t see how they can reach any conclusions based on this survey.  It’s not clear whether the survey is asking “are you poor?” or “does is suck to be poor?”

But let’s say I’m wrong and they’re right, that these results are meaningful.  I’m willing to play along.  So let’s look at some of the results they reported, and some they didn’t report:

Category      Standard of Living:

Everyone                  33

Young (18-29)          64

Hispanic                    44

Democrat                  36

Black                         36

Republican               33

White                        31

> 65 years old         23

50-64 year old        17

< $24k income        14

unemployed              8

What can we make of this?  There is extensive research on happiness, and this doesn’t really seem consistent with the results.  Old people are actually pretty happy.  And look at the gap between the below $24,000 and age 18-29!?!?  There is massive overlap between those two categories.  I’m not saying the gap is impossible, but there is certainly something strange going on.  There’s also a big overlap between poverty and being non-white.  Yet minorities report relatively high living standards.

Are we to take seriously the gaps between the races?  I can’t imagine many progressives looking at this and arguing that we need to close the standard of living gap between blacks and Republicans, or hispanics and whites.  So how can we take any of it seriously?

BTW, Mexico scores relatively high on international happiness rankings, and that might explain part of the anomalous result for hispanics.  But I am also pretty sure that whites usually score higher than blacks in America, so I’m very suspicious of that reported gap.

To conclude, what did I know about inequality before reading the posts by Yglesias and Smith?  That poverty and unemployment suck, and policymakers should try to do something about it.  And what have I learned from reading the survey they link to?  Not very much.

Maybe that’s unfair, if I try to do partial derivatives in my head perhaps I’ve learned that it really, really, really sucks to be a 58-year old poor white Republican.

PS.  Both Yglesias and Smith discuss the standard of living question.  Interestingly, Gallup also reports results from a “satisfaction” question, which gives very different results for some groups, but not others.  Both bloggers talk about the survey results as if they are “life satisfaction” results, even as they focus solely on the standard of living question.  In fairness, the worst off heavily overlap, so their conclusions wouldn’t be strongly affected.  It’s just odd that they focused on the question with the really weird results.



6 Responses to “Fun with the Gallup survey on “standard of living””

  1. Gravatar of Floccina Floccina
    8. July 2011 at 18:53

    Losing your job is on par with losing your marriage

    I have been low income and unemployed and I do not think it is anywhere close to as bad losing your marriage.

    For a while (maybe 4 months) in 1980 I lived on friend’s living room floor. I had no car and had real trouble getting to work. Then the store that I worked in closed and so I was unemployed for about a month and had to move in with my parents after having moved away 5 years earlier. A couple of years later I moved to Florida to look for work and was unemployed for about 2 months. Then I got a job cooking for a little above minimum wage and I worked for low wages like that for 6 years but I always had good friends who also had little money.

    In no way was being low income or losing a job anywhere close to as painful for me as being dumped by a long term girl friend that I cared for or for that matter my wife being sick which also happened to me.

    Maybe being poor is different than being low income but if so you cannot fix it with money or a good job.

  2. Gravatar of Indy Indy
    8. July 2011 at 19:47

    I’m getting the feeling we should be thinking about teaching “the art of happiness, satisfaction, and contentedness in life” in our primary education system. At any rate, I am highly suspicious of the ability to learn any actionable lessons from happiness polling.

  3. Gravatar of q q
    9. July 2011 at 03:36

    are people happier who don’t know whether they are happy?

  4. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    9. July 2011 at 04:48

    Floccina, Those are good points. All of this is very contingent on individual situations. I was poor from age 18 to 26, but it wasn’t much of a problem because I was young and single. I imagine being unemployed is much tougher when you are the sole breadwinner and have a spouse and children. So there are all sorts of different situations, and generalizations in this area are not always accurate.

    Indy, But what would we teach? Has anyone found the secret key to happiness? BTW, I don’t think the poll they discuss was a happiness poll. But I do agree that there are many people who are unhappy because they approach life in the wrong way. It’s just that I have no idea how we would get those people (and perhaps I’d have to include myself, at times) to change their approach.

    I often make resolutions to change, and never live up to them. Example: Do less blogging!!

    q, I don’t know. I have always thought that happiness is the expectation of future happiness. From an evolutionary perspective that makes some sense.

  5. Gravatar of John Thacker John Thacker
    9. July 2011 at 08:15

    People can and do show profound shifts on these surveys for things that probably shouldn’t be so important, like their political team winning an election, even if policies don’t change.

  6. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    10. July 2011 at 06:26

    John, Agreed.

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