August 2016

IZA DP No. 10155: Income Inequality and Well-Being in the U.S.: Evidence of Geographic-Scale- and Measure-Dependence

U.S. income inequality has risen dramatically in recent decades. Researchers consistently find that greater income inequality measured at the state or national level is associated with diminished subjective well-being (SWB) in the U.S. We conduct the first multi-scale analysis (i.e., at the ZIP-code, MSA, and state levels) of the inequality-SWB relationship using SWB data from the U.S. Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index and income inequality data from the American Community Survey. We use the rich set of well-being measures afforded by the dataset (evaluative, positive- and negative-affective hedonic, and health measures) to examine the consistency of the relationship. We find that the relationship is both scale-dependent and measure-dependent: income inequality is SWB-diminishing in large regions for all measures, SWB-diminishing in small regions for negative-affective hedonic measures, and SWB-improving in small regions for most other measures. Lastly, we find that taking all regions together, the net relationship between income inequality and SWB is negative.