Americans happier in states that spend more on libraries, parks, highways

Researchers find that there’s little political divide, incredibly enough, when it comes to investment in public goods and services.

WACO, Texas — Are you satisfied with the state of your state? A study by researchers at Baylor University found that Americans living in states that spend more on public goods and services — things like libraries, parks, highways, preservation of natural resources, and greater police protection — report greater happiness overall.

“Public goods are things you can’t exclude people from using — and one person using them doesn’t stop another from doing so,” says study author Patrick Flavin, associate professor of political science in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences, in a university release. “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.”

For their research, Flavin and his team analyzed data representing respondents’ self-reported happiness levels from 1976 to 2006 in the General Social Survey. He compared this information to government spending reports in the same time period. He found that residents across all income, education level, gender, and racial/ethnicity demographics were happier when their state governments invested more in public goods.

According to Flavin and his team, investment in public goods makes communities “more livable, with more amenities” that cater to the needs and desires of most residents.

“If roads are completed and kept up, so that people aren’t stuck in traffic, they have more time to do things they enjoy doing,” he adds. “Large parks are social spaces — and one clear finding of happiness studies is that people who are more socially connected tend to be happier.”

Flavin also noted that these findings indicate that the positive aspects of residents paying higher property taxes outweigh the negative aspects. And in this day and age, perhaps most importantly, there doesn’t seem to be much disagreement between voters when it comes to public goods and services.

“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 says. “I think there is less political conflict over public goods spending simply because if they government doesn’t provide them, they won’t be provided at all.”

The study was published in Social Science Research.