The data that proves why the arts are good for the American economy

It ain’t over till the fat lady sings.
It ain’t over till the fat lady sings.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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Since US president Donald Trump first announced his intention to defund the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in late January, there’s been a flood of dialogue about the ways that art “lifts us up” and “brings us together.” Though much of it has been intelligent and heartfelt, very little has focused on the data that defends the arts at a policy level.

The numbers pointing to the importance of the arts in America are astounding. For example, from 2006 to 2013, the arts industry consistently outperformed the overall US balance of trade, increasing the national surplus ten times over. Dance is the leisure activity most likely to help delay Alzheimer’s onset for at-risk adults. Children involved in community-based arts programs are four times more likely to be top academic performers. Facts like these show that keeping the NEA, the NEH, and the CPB in America’s cultural inventory isn’t just a matter of supporting creative expression—it’s an issue of economics, public health, and education, too.

These agencies may be safe under the government budget for fiscal year 2017, but Trump has already made a second attempt to scrap them in his 2018 budget proposal, which was released on May 23. While the proposal is unlikely to win approval in Congress, these agencies will inevitably continue to come under attack, as they have over and over again since their inception.

The arts promote economic growth locally, nationally, and globally

The arts industry generated $730 billion in 2014, while nonprofit organizations alone supported 4.1 million jobs and yielded $22.3 billion in government revenue in 2010. Research suggests output will continue to expand, as arts and cultural production grew by $165 billion (32.5%) from 1998 to 2013, even after adjusting for inflation.

As cultural events draw travelers who stay longer and spend more, this economic benefit extends to local commerce. Arts attendees who live out-of-county shell out twice as much as residents on meals, parking, shopping, and childcare. On one-way trips of 50 miles or more, 68% of Americans include an arts or cultural activity; 28% of this group (a total of 32.5 million travelers) extends their stay because of that activity. We can likely expect cultural tourism to grow: Between 2003 and 2015, the international travelers who visited visual arts destinations increased from 17% to 29%, while those who sought out music and theater rose from 13% to 16%.

The arts support public health by promoting physical and mental well-being

Medical research indicates that arts participation has broad wellness benefits, particularly during hospitalization and ongoing treatment. According to an American Journal of Public health meta-analysis of more than 100 studies, personal engagement in music, visual arts, movement-based expression, and creative writing has been shown to reduce heart rates, respiratory rates, blood pressure, pain, fatigue, cortisol levels, anxiety, depression, preoccupation with illness, and physical and emotional distress during treatment. It can also improve sleep, immunity, cognitive function, emotional processing, and self-esteem, increase positive emotions, and promote self-discovery, while reducing symptoms overall.

Healthcare providers’ outlooks also point to art therapy’s value. Nearly 50% of American healthcare institutions offer arts programs for patients, their families, and staff. Of those that do, 78% note advantages, including shorter hospital stays, decreased need for medication, more effective pain management, and fewer complications—all of which help to lower healthcare costs, as has been shown in numerous hospital case studies.

Looking at public-opinion polls, it’s clear that the arts really do make people happier: 63% of Americans believe the arts provide a positive experience beyond daily routine, 64% feel the arts bring them pleasure, and 74% say the arts promote positivity in an increasingly problematic world.

The arts cultivate a more educated, innovative population 

Given that art can improve cognitive function, it’s not surprising it’s also a boon for education. Students who receive arts training throughout all four years of high school have SAT scores 100 points higher on average than those with only half a year of such training. These students show higher GPAs and lower dropout rates, regardless of socioeconomic status. The benefits are especially compelling for those deemed to be “at-risk.” Students in this group with an arts education are three times more likely to complete a bachelor’s degree; they also have higher STEM scores, loftier career goals, and volunteer more frequently. This overall trend extends to higher education, and artists are shown to be twice as likely as non-artists to have completed college degrees.

An arts education also prepares Americans to enter the creative economy, which is currently comprised of 4.7 million workers across publishing, broadcasting, creative advertising, film, and performing arts. But it appears to have advantages in unrelated fields, too. According to a survey by The Conference Board, more than half of employers view a college arts degree as a stronger indicator of creativity than other degrees. That’s crucial, given that 97% say creativity has increasing importance in the workplace and 72% say creativity is a priority in hiring decisions.

And it’s not just about creativity: Research suggests that the arts also make people more entrepreneurial and innovative. Michigan State University found that STEM graduates who had started businesses or developed patented technologies had received up to eight times more arts exposure as children than the general public.

The arts foster socially cohesive communities that promote a stronger economy

Data from the Knight Foundation reveals that across urban and rural America, people rate arts and cultural opportunities as the factor most likely to influence community attachment. This bond drives local engagement, which in turn promotes well-being and local economic and GDP growth. According to polls by Americans for the Arts, 87% of Americans believe the arts are crucial to quality of life. Meanwhile, 62% feel the arts help them better understand other cultures, and 67% believe the arts unify communities, regardless of age, race, and ethnicity. These last two statistics may help to explain why cities with high concentrations of art tend to have higher social cohesion and lower crime rates—not to mention lower poverty rates, higher civic engagement, and better child welfare.

Research from the University of Pennsylvania has shown that these trends apply across America. But more specifically, the school’s recent case study of New York suggests that arts exposure has a similar effect on “at-risk” communities as it does on “at-risk” students. The study shows that low- and moderate-income neighborhoods with many cultural outlets experience broad advantages over neighborhoods that are racially and economically similar but lacking in cultural resources. The culturally rich neighborhoods show an 18% decrease in serious crime rate, 14% decrease in child neglect and abuse, 18% increase in top scores on standardized English and math tests, and a 5% decrease in obesity. Even for the communities in the lowest 40% of income distribution, these benefits persist where the arts are present.

This data proves art lifts us up—economically, physically, emotionally, intellectually—and brings us together. Art accomplishes what policymakers aim to do through so many other efforts. The arts are not expendable. We should support them, because they in turn support our aspirations for ourselves.