Americans are losing faith in each other. But the situation isn't beyond repair, researchers say.

February 26, 2021
Life challenges might be endangering the social contract. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Life challenges might be endangering the social contract. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Declining social trust, a decades-long trend that could be threatening America’s civic fabric, has been driven largely by individuals’ faltering faith in institutions and experiences of job loss, new research found, suggesting the drop-off isn’t purely the result of generational shifts.

According to an article published Feb. 9 in Social Science Research, about half of the decline in U.S. social trust — the tendency to believe that most people can be trusted — between 1973 and 2018 came from individuals’ experiences with unemployment and weakening faith in public institutions.

“[W]e provide thorough empirical evidence for the hypothesis that individual experiences matter for shaping Americans’ trust in other people — not only during their formative years, but throughout the life course,” authors Jan Mewes, Malcolm Fairbrother, Giuseppe Nicola Giordano, Cary Wu and Rima Wilkes wrote.

Since these kinds of experiences crop up over the course of individuals’ lives, the researchers noted that the erosion of social trust in America isn’t necessarily culturally ingrained from childhood and could potentially be reversed.

Social trust among Americans has been on a “worrisome” downward slide for decades, they added, pointing to data from the General Social Survey. In 1973, 46% of respondents said they could trust most people, while only 32% of respondents said the same in 2018.

Rising mistrust is widely viewed to have negative impacts on a society’s social, political and economic life, raising barriers to cooperation between people wherever they feel they can’t rely on others to play fair.

“Social trust is related to a lot of desirable outcomes,” Mewes told The Academic Times, noting that low-trust societies sometimes face obstacles to cooperation. In particular, he cited political scientist Robert Putnam’s research on southern Italy, a region where low social trust sometimes hampers business transactions and social interactions between people who feel they don't know each other well.

“Other researchers have been showing that the absence of trust is bad for economic growth and for well-functioning democracies,” he said.

Previous studies of declining social trust in the U.S. have floated explanations based on increasing income inequality, changing generational attitudes and rising ethnic diversity and residential segregation, according to Mewes and his co-authors.

While those theories have important insights to offer, the researchers said, they’re focused on a macro-level and on data from single snapshots in time, potentially masking how individuals’ life experiences shape their levels of trust in others through time.

The researchers first analyzed responses from GSS panel studies between 2006 and 2014 to identify whether social trust was impacted by a person’s unemployment experiences; real and perceived changes in income; changes in how often a person met with friends, family and neighbors; and changes in confidence in political institutions.

While their regression models didn’t find a link between social connections and social trust, they did establish that past job loss, changes in satisfaction with one’s income and confidence in political institutions all predicted within-individual changes in trust, echoing earlier findings.

Mewes said the discovery of a link between an individual’s having lost a job and lower social trust was particularly novel. That’s because previous studies had focused mostly on the impact of a respondent’s current employment status, he explained, while Mewes and his colleagues found that, “Whether you have ever experienced unemployment [is] what really matters.”

“Our study is, to our knowledge, the first that points to a longitudinal association between job loss and social trust in the U.S. context,” they wrote.

Having found three individual-level predictors of lower social trust, the researchers then explored whether long-term trends in those variables could explain the observed decline in U.S. social trust.

To do that, they developed a regression model using GSS data from between 1973 and 2018 to compare two scenarios. One scenario reflected how social trust was projected to develop if the three predictors stayed constant since 1973, while the other held those variables constant at their respective mean values over the period.

By examining how the predicted social trust values diverged year by year between the two scenarios, they could isolate the impacts key individual-level variables had on social trust over the 45-year stretch. 

Between 1973 and 2018, the researchers wrote, "Trends in unemployment experiences, satisfaction with income and confidence in political institutions account, according to our model, for roughly half of the observed decline in social trust."

These trends had the greatest effect on social trust beginning in the 1990s, according to Mewes, Fairbrother, Giordano, Wu and Wilkes.

Taken together, the results show that individual Americans’ experiences have played a key role in the decline of social trust, Mewes said, and that the drop-off isn't necessarily “deterministic” at a generational level.

That means that policy measures targeted at softening the blow from job loss and at bolstering faith in governing institutions could potentially stop further erosion in social trust, he continued, although more research would be needed to learn whether policy could really halt or even reverse the slide.

“I would say I’m cautiously optimistic” that such interventions can be effective, Mewes said.

The paper “Experiences matter: A longitudinal study of individual-level sources of declining social trust in the United States,” published Feb. 9 in Social Science Research, was co-authored by Jan Mewes, Lund University; Malcolm Fairbrother, Umeå University; Giuseppe Nicola Giordano, Lund University; Cary Wu, York University; Rima Wilkes, University of British Columbia.

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