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New Research Suggests Government Spending Can Spread Happiness

Want your citizens to be content? Try allocating tax dollars to roads, parks, and libraries.
Public library

New research reports that Americans are more satisfied with their lives when their state spends more on public goods.

It's a truism of American politics: Voters resent paying taxes because they don't trust the government to spend money wisely. For progressives who would love to implement programs like Medicare for All, this is a major challenge: How can you convince citizens that government can make a positive difference in their lives?

New research points to a promising approach. It reports that Americans are more satisfied with their lives when their state generously allocates money for public goods—tangible things like police protection, pothole-free highways, and well-maintained public parks.

"The most relevant choice facing governments at the state and local level is not necessarily how much or little to spend in total, but how to prioritize and allocate spending across different categories, given their budget constraints," writes Baylor University political scientist Patrick Flavin.

His study suggests that, to maximize residents' happiness, state and local governments should focus on the sorts of services that citizens utilize in their day-to-day lives.

For the study, in the journal Social Science Research, Flavin used data from the General Social Survey for the years 1976 through 2006. He focused on a single question: "Taken all together, how would you say things are these days—would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?"

For each year, he calculated average answers for each of the 50 states. He then compared those averages with the levels of state spending (as a percentage of the total economy) on five items: libraries, parks and recreation, natural resources, highways, and police protection.

After taking into account a range of personal factors (including employment and marital status, education, and income) and statewide statistics (such as the level of income inequality, and rates of economic growth and violent crime), Flavin found that "citizens report higher levels of happiness when they live in a state that devotes a greater amount of resources to providing for public goods."

This relationship "is substantively large and invariant across income, education, gender, and race/ethnicity lines," he adds, "indicating that [this type of[ spending has broad benefits across society."

In contrast, "This relationship does not hold for total government spending, or for programs that are not, strictly speaking, public goods, like education and welfare assistance for the poor." Such programs surely improve the lives of the people they serve, but they apparently don't affect satisfaction levels among the wider populace.

These results could be used to justify spending less money on priorities that only benefit specific constituencies. On the other hand, people who see that public-sector projects are improving their lives may feel less hostile toward government—and this recognition might reduce resistance to ambitious new proposals.

After all, as Flavin notes, public-works spending not only helps make communities more livable; it also "can help to boost levels of social connectedness among citizens," thanks to the public spaces it creates and maintains.

In these angry, polarized times, creating a happier, more connected citizenry is a lovely thought. And that may be as simple as providing every resident easy access to a safe, appealing park.