Trust is a crucial element in our economic system. Without it at the center, our equally trust-based market system would collapse, taking our freedom-based society with it. It is the very core of American life.
The Pew Research Center’s latest report on this subject, “Trust and Distrust in America,” by Lee Rainee, Scott Keeter, and Andrew Perrin, finds that key areas of trust are at levels that are truly worrisome.
The overwhelming majority of Americans, 75 percent, for example, believe that trust in the federal government has been shrinking. And trust in each other isn’t far behind. Almost two-thirds of Americans believe that trust in each other is declining, too.
In evaluating the impact of this decline of personal and institutional trust, 64 percent of the adults surveyed believe that the decline in trust in the federal government is a barrier to solving the nation’s problems. The Pew report noted that, “…Some Americans say they think there are direct connections between rising distrust and other trends they perceived as major problems, such as partisan paralysis in government.”
The Pew researchers took a different approach with this survey and it is likely to prove very useful for us to understand and evaluate the trust issue. Many of the questions, for example, are aimed at determining what people think is happening to trust in our world. This Pew report adds an inquiry into what the respondents are experiencing in their own lives. They asked respondents questions about their own level of trust in the federal government and whether they trust other people.
What they found was that, “Levels of personal trust tend to be linked with people’s broader views on institutions and civic life.” This is a very significant relationship when combined with their other findings on the racial, educational, age, and income factors influencing an individual’s trust in institutions and other people.
It turns out, for example, that, “the older a person is, the more likely they are to tilt toward more trustful answers.” Of course, con men have known about this relationship since forever, but the federal government and legitimate businesses should pay heed also.
The age-trust relationship is most dramatic in young people. Nearly half of the young adults fall into the “low trust” group. This worrisome finding is worth a detailed study on its own.
One optimistic note in the report is that Americans have not lost hope about the trust decline. As the report notes, “More than 8 in 10 Americans think the decline in trust can be turned around” and this applies to both the distrust of the government and of each other.
When asked about the reason for the decline of trust in the federal government over a third of the respondents blamed the performance of the government itself. That was the largest factor cited, but there were many others submitted, including the news media which was named by 10 percent of those who listed causes.
The decline in personal trust opened up a new can of problems. The report notes that, “Those who think interpersonal trust has declined in the past generation offer a laundry list of societal and political problems, including a sense that Americans on the whole have become more lazy, greedy, and dishonest.” The largest single factor given for the decline, though, is not really a cause but an effect. As the report reveals, “Overall, 49 percent of adults think interpersonal trust has been tailing off because people are less reliable than they used to be.”
Despite the discouraging numbers in the report, the public is right not to lose hope for a turnaround. It is not the first time in our American history that politics has driven trust from the field. In the early years of our Republic, for example, the military buildup in the wake of the “XYZ Affair” brought out a level of polarization that threatened our very existence as a self-governing country.
Today, for example, we trust the Post Office to deliver the mail faithfully. In the early 19th century, though, the Post Office was so politicized that Thomas Jefferson’s opponents opened and read his mail at the post office. Like a game of “rock, paper, scissors,” polarized politics covers ethics.
The erosion of trust, however, is no mere game. It is a serious matter. The indications that half of our young adults have little trust in other people is telling us how serious this problem is. It is a problem that we must find a way to fix. Ignoring it is not an option.
A good first step would be to restore the value of the truth by demanding it from governments, politicians, corporations, schools and news media outlets. It couldn’t hurt.
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