Can We Trust Each Other?

By Connie Cass,  AP.org

We’re not talking about the loss of faith in big institutions such as the government, the church or Wall Street, which fluctuates with events. For four decades, a gut-level ingredient of democracy – trust in the other fellow – has been quietly draining away. These days, only one-third of Americans say most people can be trusted. Half felt that way in 1972, when the General Social Survey first asked the question.

Forty years later, a record high of nearly two-thirds say “you can’t be too careful” in dealing with people.An AP-GfK poll conducted last month found that Americans are suspicious of each other in everyday encounters. Less than one-third expressed a lot of trust in clerks who swipe their credit cards, drivers on the road, or people they meet when traveling. (. . .) imgres-17

Does it matter that Americans are suspicious of one another? Yes, say worried political and social scientists. What’s known as “social trust” brings good things.A society where it’s easier to compromise or make a deal. Where people are willing to work with those who are different from them for the common good. Where trust appears to promote economic growth. (. . .)

Some studies suggest it’s too late for most Americans alive today to become more trusting. That research says the basis for a person’s lifetime trust levels is set by his or her mid-twenties and unlikely to change, other than in some unifying crucible such as a world war. People do get a little more trusting as they age. But beginning with the baby boomers, each generation has started off adulthood less trusting than those who came before them. The best hope for creating a more trusting nation may be figuring out how to inspire today’s youth, perhaps united by their high-tech gadgets, to trust the way previous generations did in simpler times. (. . .)imgres-18

University of Maryland Professor Eric Uslaner, who studies politics and trust, puts the blame elsewhere: economic inequality. Trust has declined as the gap between the nation’s rich and poor gapes ever wider, Uslaner says, and more and more Americans feel shut out. They’ve lost their sense of a shared fate. Tellingly, trust rises with wealth. “People who believe the world is a good place and it’s going to get better and you can help make it better, they will be trusting,” Uslaner said. “If you believe it’s dark and driven by outside forces you can’t control, you will be a mistruster.” African-Americans consistently have expressed far less faith in “most people” than the white majority does. Racism, discrimination and a high rate of poverty destroy trust.

Nearly 8 in 10 African-Americans, in the 2012 survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago with principal funding from the National Science Foundation, felt that “you can’t be too careful.” (. . .)

The decline in the nation’s overall trust quotient was driven by changing attitudes among whites. It’s possible that people today are indeed less deserving of trust than Americans in the past, perhaps because of a decline in moral values.

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