Does America have a trust problem?

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a big story trying to unpack the idea of social trust with the headline of “Why are Americans So Distrustful of Each Other.” The author of the piece argues that social trust in American is declining, relying on data from national surveys like the General Social Survey (GSS) to show “a drop {from} 46 percent in 1972 when it began to 31.5 percent in 2018, and the drop is fairly gradua{l}.” This decline represents a 33-percent drop overall and actually fluctuates quite a bit, but there is a real problem with this data: The idea of trust is never clearly defined. In fact, when more clear measures of trust are considered, the data looks far less grim, and Americans may be far more trusting of others than the Journal suggests.

Social trust is critical
for the creation of social capital and strong institutions, so having a society
with seemingly such low levels of trust would be very worrisome. The GSS asks, “Generally
speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be
too careful in dealing with people?” But who is this question referring to? Those
who live in one’s local residential community? Those who do billing for large
corporations? Those who work in the government? This question is so amorphous
that it is impossible to develop any real sense of what Americans are
evaluating here. We should be careful about taking away too much from the
decline.

In fact, the Pew Research Center has asked a similar question about trust: “Which of the following statements comes to closer to your view? In general, most people can be trusted {or} in general, most people cannot be trusted.” These results look quite different. In 2016, Pew found that 43 percent of Americans believed that most people can be trusted — a number 12 points higher than the GSS figure of 31 percent in 2016. Since the rise of the global pandemic, trust has climbed: In the summer of 2020, 58 percent of Americans reported that, in general, most people can be trusted according to Pew; a figure almost twice as high at the most recent data point relied on by the Journal.

Via Twenty20

When particular groups of people or institutions are considered, the numbers are more clear and reputable. For instance, American trust in the federal government is low and has been steadily declining. As of fall of 2020, Pew found that only 20 percent of Americans trusted the federal government to do what is right just about always or most of the time. Compared to the late 1950s and early 1960s, this figure has plummeted from around 70 percent. And over the past three presidencies — through the final years of the George W. Bush administration and the presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump — less than 30 percent of Americans trust the federal government just about always or most of the time.

Trust in other areas of American life varies. State and local government, for instance, rate very differently from the national figures. AEI’s Survey on Community and Society (SCS) directly compared the different levels of government and found that, in 2018, 17 percent of Americans trusted the federal government to do what is right “just about always or most of the time.” Meanwhile, the state government was higher, at 25 percent, and local government was appreciably higher, at 37 percent — more than twice the number of the federal government and a potent illustration of why specificity matters.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic,
trust was not as bad as it may appear based on the GSS. AEI’s SCS asked about
trust in a number of groups in America, prompting them with “In general, how much do you trust the following
groups of people?” and the results are far less negative when smaller — yet hugely
important — institutions and groups are considered.

When asked how much they trust the
people in their neighborhood, for instance, 70 percent of Americans said that trusted
their neighbors “a great deal” (22 percent) or “some” (48 percent). Twenty
percent trusted their neighbors “only a little” and 8 percent “not at all.”
This is fairly positive news, as an overwhelming majority of Americans reported
robust levels of trust in the areas in which they reside. Slightly lower numbers — around 60
percent or so —
had such high levels of trust with the people with whom they attended school or
work, the local stores where they regularly shopped, and those who were in
shared clubs, groups, and associations. The numbers are lower for their
churches or places of worship, at 51 percent, and the local news media is lower,
at 45 percent. Incidentally, before the recent national protests surrounding
the police, 70 percent of Americans trusted the police.

The point here is very simple: Levels of general trust in the nation could be better, but poorly specified conceptions of trust are not helpful when thinking about how to improve our polity. While trust in the federal government is low, trust in one’s neighbors is comparatively high. Therefore, greater specificity is absolutely needed when we talk about generalized trust. The numbers that emerged in multiple surveys from less amorphously defined questions are not nearly as discouraging as the low numbers reported in the Journal, which should be taken with a grain of salt.

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