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January 23, 2018 Event: Cutting-edge research on well-being in america

Happiness for All? Unequal Hopes and Lives in Pursuit of the American Dream, was the focus of a very stimulating meeting co-sponsored on January 23 by AAWGT and the Community Foundation of Anne Arundel County. Carol Graham, author of a 2017 book by the same title, Leo Pasvolsky Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of MD (College Park) presented the results of her new research using measures of well-being to understand some of the serious divisions that are threatening our country. Her research links income inequality with well-being to illustrate how the widening prosperity gap has led to rising inequality in people’s beliefs, hopes, and aspirations.

According to Graham, many Americans, especially white Americans, are deeply pessimistic about their future and the futures of their children and do not believe the American Dream is attainable for them. She described how the high costs of being poor are most evident not in material deprivation but rather in stress, insecurity, and lack of hope. The result is an optimism gap between rich and poor that, if left unchecked, could lead to an increasingly divided society.

Graham illustrated through her research how people who do not believe in their own futures are unlikely to invest in them. She talked about how the consequences of that frame of mind can range from job instability and poor education to failed marriages, greater mortality rates, and higher rates of incarceration. She described how the optimism gap is reflected in the very words people use, with the wealthy using language that reflects an interest in acquiring knowledge and planning for the future, particularly their children’s future, while the words of the poor reflect desperation, short-term outlooks, and patchwork solutions. She explained that she found the least optimistic people in America to be poor whites, not poor blacks or Hispanics, due in part to the fact that the latter groups have been more accustomed to hardship and struggle.

The audience responded to Graham’s remarks with a number of comments and questions aimed at trying to understand the implications of this groundbreaking study on the current situation in our country and locally. She encouraged the use of this and other data to develop policies and approaches—particularly to meet immediate needs in Anne Arundel County—to respond to the reality of so many Americans whose lives are falling far short of their aspirations.

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