Journal of Population Economics

, Volume 32, Issue 2, pp 665–733 | Cite as

Unequal hopes and lives in the USA: optimism, race, place, and premature mortality

  • Carol GrahamEmail author
  • Sergio Pinto
Original Paper


The 2016 election highlighted deep divisions in the USA, and exposed unhappiness and frustration among poor and uneducated whites. The starkest marker of this unhappiness is the rise in preventable deaths and suicides among the middle aged of this cohort. In contrast, minorities have much higher levels of optimism, and their life expectancies continue to rise. Low-income respondents display the largest differences, with poor blacks by far the most optimistic, and poor rural whites the least. African Americans and Hispanics also have higher life satisfaction and lower stress incidence than poor whites. The gaps across racial groups peak in middle age, at the nadir of the U-curve of age and life satisfaction. We explored the association between our subjective well-being data and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) mortality data. We find that the absence of hope among less than college-educated whites matches the trends in premature mortality among 35–64-year-olds. Reported pain, reliance on disability insurance, low labor force participation, and differential levels of resilience across races all have mediating effects in the desperation-mortality associations. We also explore the role of place, and map the states associated with higher/lower indicators of well-being for these different cohorts. The matches between indicators of well-being and of mortality suggest that the former could serve as warning indicators of ill-being in the future, rather than waiting for rising mortality to sound the alarms.


Well-being Optimism Stress Premature mortality Resilience 

JEL classifications

D6 I3 I14 I19 



The authors are, respectively, Leo Pasvolsky Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and College Park Professor, University of Maryland, and PhD student, University of Maryland. We thank Andrew Oswald and Eddie Lawlor, as well as Alice Rivlin, Alan Blinder, Belle Sawhill, Bill Galston, Mike O’Hanlon, Bradley Hardy and other participants at a Brookings “restoring the middle class” seminar, for very helpful comments. They also appreciate the suggestions of an anonymous reviewer. Graham acknowledges the generous support from a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation pioneer award, and Pinto from a flagship fellowship at UMD.


This study was funded by grant # 74378 from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Brookings InstitutionWashingtonUSA
  2. 2.School of Public PolicyUniversity of MarylandCollege ParkUSA

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