In a column in yesterday’s Washington Post, Dana Milbank has written on “Trump has made our lives worse. Here’s the proof.” He labels this apparent outcome of the “Trump Effect.”
Since 1972 the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago has annually studied the nation’s mood. They survey people to find out how they identify their level of happiness. As of this summer, an all-time record low of 14% declared themselves “very happy.” This compares with 29% saying that at the lowest point after the 2008 financial crisis. OTOH, fully 36% declared themselves to be “satisfied” with their financial situation and a record low expressed dissatisfaction, the survey taken at a time when expanded unemployment benefits were still in effect. But Milbank declared that this amounted to a disjuncture between peoples’ economic conditions and declared happiness, with this contradicting, or at least failing to support, a longstanding finding from happiness surveys in the past.
This may be an overstated conclusion. Milbank did not report on it, but studies over the years have found that higher-income people tend to declare themselves to be happier than lower-income people. This may still hold. In the US this finding has been part of the famous “Easterlin Paradox,” that higher-income people report higher levels of life satisfaction (or happiness) at any given point in time while over time as national income rises, happiness levels do not rise. Indeed, another data source with a longer time horizon on this found US national happiness to have gradually declined since 1957. It must be noted that this finding of declining national happiness as national income rises does not show up in al nations, although it has been observed in several others besides the US, leading to much controversy and debate. Richard Easterlin himself (still alive well into his 90s) has emphasized the impact of distribution of income and perceived economic security, with peoples’ happiness depending on how they compare themselves with others. So even though income rose rapidly, the ending of old age pensions and rising income inequality led happiness levels in China to decline from around 1990 to around 2004, although they have increased again since as pensions were extended to rural areas.
In any case, even as there seems to have been a drift over time downwards in US happiness levels even as national income has risen, Milbank sees the NORC time series as exhibiting a specifically identifiable “Trump Effect.” In 2017, the first year of his presidency, 21 states exhibited a decline in happiness while not a single one showed an increase. Apparently, there was a correlation with voting, with most of the clearly declining states being ones that did not support Trump. But Milbank notes that there seems to have been no offset of an increase in happiness in states that did support him. While views of “pleasure in activities and positive energy from friends, family, and leaders” were stable from 2014 through 2016, but fell noticeably in 2017 and have stayed down since.
Other studies have found similar results, with unsurprisingly things worsening during the pandemic. The American Psychological Association found in 2017 that two-thirds of the US population, including a majority of Republicans, were “stressed about the future of the nation.” This rose to 83% this year, with 66% declaring that the government was mismanaging the pandemic. According to Rachel Garfield of the Kaiser Family Foundation, an August poll found 53% of the population say that their “mental health” has been “hurt,” with rising problems regarding sleeping, eating, and alcohol and drug abuse. Those reporting “depressive symptoms” quadrupled to 40% during the pandemic.
It is unsurprising that things would get worse during the pandemic, but Milbank notes they had already worsened prior to the pandemic starting even while the economy was still getting better on most fronts. That Trump is perceived to have handled the pandemic more poorly than leaders in nearly every other nation certainly adds to the idea that he has especially aggravated the unhappiness problem in America, exacerbating the apparent “Trump Effect” that had already been going on. Milbank notes Trump administration official Michael Caputo taking a leave of absence this past week due to his high “stress level” and declares that if Trump is reelected “Surely four more years would cause the losing of the American mind.” There really is little to add to this foreboding forecast, although getting the pandemic back under control might mitigate this somewhat, assuming that happens.