Is the True Goal of Social Movement Work to Make People Happier?

A recent NY Times article highlighted a study of a 1990’s government program that gave subsidies to low-income urban families to move to the suburbs.  The theory was that families who left neighborhoods of concentrated poverty would experience better education, better jobs and higher incomes.

The program was a complete failure in achieving those goals.  Families in the program got out of the hood but stayed poor, they just happened to live in a neighborhood where there were middle-class people physically near them.

But weirdly enough, these families experienced a large rise in happiness.  The self-reported happiness for families making $20k a year who moved was equal to the average of families making $33k a year who stayed.

Was this policy a success or failure?  It comes down to a deeper question:  What is our ultimate goal in producing social change?  Is it actually about people being happier?

I’ve got a utilitarian streak in me– I’m normally more into the issues that improve people’s everyday living conditions rather than the deeper philosophical stuff, which I find frustratingly fluffy sometimes.

And my main political passion– fighting economic inequality– is partly grounded in a utilitarian view of happiness: Studies show that extra family income brings higher levels of happiness until a certain plateau (around $75k per year in the US) after which additional money doesn’t change your life satisfaction. So boosting overall economic growth does less to improve people’s lives than ensuring the economy’s gains are shared by low and middle-income families.

But if all we cared about was happiness, we might want to give up on the social movement shit and just make funny YouTube videos or build free amusement parks for the masses.  Better yet we could create some sort of creepy dystopian future where everybody lies around all day taking happy pills or living in a perfect virtual reality world.

Making people happy isn’t what motivates me to do the work I do.  If it was, I’d study engineering and go make iPhones.  People fucking love iPhones.

Maybe I’m a disgruntled political animal who just likes the fight itself.

Or maybe there’s some larger abstract idea of justice that matters in its own right.  Maybe there’s an inherent moral problem with a world where the few have so much power and the many have so little.   Sometimes struggling to tip that balance of power feels like it’s not making people more happy, but maybe there’s some deeper moral value that isn’t just about happiness.

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