(Un?)Happiness and Gasoline Prices in the United States

October 19, 2010

Gasoline purchases are an essential part of the American way of life. There were about 250 million motor vehicles in the United States in 2008 – just under a vehicle per person. Americans drive an average of more than 11,000 miles per year and gasoline purchases are an essential part of most households’ budgets. Between 1995 and 2003, gasoline prices in the U.S. averaged about $1.49 a gallon, with average prices rising above $2.00 in 2004. By the summer of 2008, gasoline prices had reached a national average of $4.11 per gallon. At that time, Americans earning less than $15,000 a year were spending as much as 15 percent of their household income on gasoline – double the proportion from seven years earlier. In addition, unpredictable fuel costs make planning monthly household expenditures difficult, which can be detrimental to individual welfare and even to the overall economy.

Gasoline prices fell in the aftermath of the 2009 economic crisis. Prior and during the financial crisis, rising gasoline prices were seen as a symptom of an uncertain economic situation, as well as evidence of the questionable sustainability of our future oil supply. Gasoline prices abated along with the decrease of economic activity that accompanied the onset of the recession, reaching their minimum in late December 2008. A few months later, as the economy entered a gradual recovery phase, gasoline prices also trended upward. In contrast to the previous period of great uncertainty about future oil supplies, however, these price trends were considered more positively as signs of the U.S. economic recovery.