The FINANCIAL — In the nearly eight years since President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, the percentage of U.S. adults who evaluate their lives well enough to be considered “thriving” has improved by nearly four percentage points. The 55.4% who are thriving so far in 2016 is on pace to be the highest recorded in the nine years Gallup and Healthways have tracked it.
Gallup and Healthways classify Americans as “thriving,” “struggling” or “suffering” according to how they rate their current and future lives using a ladder scale with steps numbered from 0 to 10, based on the Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale. Those who rate their present life a 7 or higher and their life in five years an 8 or higher are classified as thriving.
In 2008, George W. Bush’s final year in office, 48.9% of U.S. adults were classified as thriving. By 2010, the second year of Obama’s presidency, this figure had bumped up to 53.2%, where it generally remained through 2013. In 2014, the percentage of adults classified as thriving crossed the 54% mark for the first time, only to be topped again at 55.1% in 2015. Life evaluations are currently on pace to reach another record high in 2016, according to Gallup.
Under Obama, Life Evaluations Improve for All Major Racial and Ethnic Groups
The percentages of U.S. whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians who are thriving have all increased during the Obama era, although not uniformly. Blacks’ life evaluations improved by nearly 13 points between 2008 and 2010, more than any other group. By 2010, blacks’ life evaluations were second only to those of Asians. Some of the increase among blacks — particularly the seven-point increase that occurred between 2008 and 2009 — could be explained by Obama coming into office, which may have made blacks feel more optimistic about their current and future lives even if his being in office hadn’t yet had any tangible effect on their lives.
However, blacks’ life evaluations have waned in Obama’s second term, averaging below 54% each year since 2013 and now registering below that of whites and Hispanics. These results dovetail with blacks’ collective sentiment that Obama has not done enough to improve black Americans’ standard of living.
Whites’ and Hispanics’ life evaluations improved much more modestly in the first two years of Obama’s presidency. The percentage thriving among whites rose from 49.2% in 2008 to 52.4% in 2010 and stayed near that level through 2013. Similarly, the percentage of Hispanics thriving rose from 49.2% in 2008 to 53.9% in 2010 and remained in the 52% to 55% range for the next three years. Since then, both groups have improved to an identical 55.7% thus far in 2016.
Asians, who experienced marked improvement between 2008 and 2010, have historically maintained the highest life evaluations of all four groups. The percentage of Asians thriving is currently on pace to be above 60% for the fifth straight year.
U.S. adults’ life evaluations are better today than when President Obama took office in January 2009. During the Great Recession, the rapid decline in the labor market played an instrumental role in suppressing life evaluations nationally, setting the scene for improvement to come. Many factors could help explain the subsequent uptick in life evaluations, including the election of the president himself. Obama’s first term showed a major improvement in blacks’ life evaluations, especially among black Democrats. White Democrats’ life evaluations improved as well, but this was partially offset by a modest decline in life evaluations among white Republicans.
Obama’s second term, however, shows an improvement in whites’ life evaluations — particularly those of white Republicans — and corresponding declines among blacks and black Democrats during a period when the presidency did not change. This finding suggests that some improvements in the economy after the Great Recession have likely played a more significant role in the overall gains that have been measured. For example, the percentage of U.S. adults who can’t afford food and the percentage who have experienced healthcare insecurity within the past 12 months are both at their lowest levels since Gallup and Healthways began tracking them in 2008, and the uninsured rate has dropped over six percentage points since late 2013. The percentage of U.S. adults who have a good job — those who work full time for an employer — is now at its highest point since measurement began in 2010. Additionally, Gallup’s Job Creation Index — U.S. workers’ reports of employer hiring activity — is at its highest point since measurement began in 2008.
Social turmoil also may be affecting some Americans’ life evaluations. For example, recent high-profile incidents of police shooting black men have resulted in unrest in many black communities, which may be contributing to the decline seen in blacks’ life evaluations in Obama’s second term.
Finally, Gallup research shows that Asians do well in many of the areas that drive positive life evaluations, including having enough money to buy what one needs, using strengths daily and making time for trips or vacations with family or friends. Each of these aspects of well-being strongly influences life evaluations — and in all cases, Asians substantially outpace their counterparts.