Happy States Spend More on Public Goods, Study Finds

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Which states have the happiest residents? States where governments spend more public goods that improve the quality of life for constituents — like libraries, parks, natural resources, and police protection, a Baylor University study found.

Those public goods, which are also quality of life, are things that everyone in a community can use.

Patrick Flavin, Ph.D.

“Public goods are things you can’t exclude people from using — and one person using them doesn’t stop another from doing so,” researcher Patrick Flavin, Ph.D., associate professor of political science in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences said in a press release explaining the study. “They’re typically not profitable to produce in the private market, so if the government doesn’t provide them, they will either be under-provided or not at all.”

So things like well-maintained roads make people happy because they aren’t stuck in detours and traffic, and large social spaces like parks and trails create places that people can connect, which also makes people happier.

And while one might think that since spending on public goods can push property taxes higher, the fact that they also boost home values can often make people reconcile themselves to the extra expense.

“While higher property taxes generally accompany higher home values, it seems that the good outweighs the unfortunate part about having to pay higher taxes,” Flavin said.

Flavin’s study, which was published in Social Science Research, examined data on self-reported happiness levels from 1976 to 2006 found in the General Social Survey conducted by independent researcher NORC  at the University of Chicago.

He also looked at government spending data for states from the Census Bureau for those same years, finding that on average, spending on public goods averaged about 22.5 percent of total state revenues for that time frame.

“We can look at the city where people live, their neighborhoods, and see how public goods spending predicts happiness after taking other important factors, such as marital status, health, education, and income, into account,” Flavin said.

And in general, spending on these public goods tends to be something everyone can get behind, regardless of their political affiliation.

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“Compared to a lot of the other government spending, public goods tend to be less controversial between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, compared to poverty assistance or unemployment benefits, where there is definite disagreement between political parties,” Flavin said. “I think there is less political conflict over public goods spending simply because if the government doesn’t provide them, they won’t be provided at all.”

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that a wealth of public goods will create happiness. After all, some happier citizens could be picking states naturally that spend more on these amenities.

“It also is possible that happier citizens support higher spending on public goods and elect state officials to deliver on that policy,” Flavin said.

Next up, Flavin hopes to study the link to happiness and public goods further by looking at local governments, and not just the state level.

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