Dwindling Social Capital: Why Today’s Americans Don’t Trust Anyone

Image courtesy of via Flickr, and Maklaan via Wikipedia

Dropping public trust may be extremely bad for social capital. Low social capital, in turn, may be detrimental to communities, health, the economy, and democracy. 

Today, Americans’ trust in others and confidence in institutions (including the news media, medicine, corporations, universities, and Congress) are at their lowest point in over three decades.

Such public trust — or in this case, the lack thereof — is a key component of something known as social capital.

Though definitions vary, social capital is, as defined by the OECD:

“networks together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate cooperation within or among groups….  these networks and understandings engender trust and so enable people to work together.”  

In other words, social capital measures the level and intensity of connections, trust, and shared benefits between groups and individuals.

Is social capitaI (which encompasses levels of trust, group membership, as well as virtual and in-person social contact) truly in decline? And if so, why?

The research

Recent analyses of national survey data, forthcoming publication in the Psychological Sciences journal, reveal that today, trust in others and confidence in institutions is the lowest it’s been in 30 years.

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Only 33 percent of adults thought most people could be trusted, as opposed to 42 percent in the early seventies. Of 12th graders surveyed, this statistic fell from 32 percent to 18 percent.

Researchers noted a distinct correlation between income inequality and poverty and falling social trust, which indicates that socioeconomic factors may play a big role in driving public trust downward.

Their conclusion was that this downward trend of social capital is one that may be “profoundly negative” for democracy.

According to Pew Research, American public trust in the government is at a historic low, with 75 percent of those surveyed saying they trusted Washington only some of the time, or never.

The more, the better: Why social capital is valuable

Is falling social capital really so profoundly negative, as researches say? To answer this question, we can look at how it’s measured, and its observed benefits.

The difficulty with social capital, naturally, is that it is difficult to measure. According to the World Bank, this is because of its multi-dimensional definition and conceptual ambiguity.

Measurements of social capital typically draw from comprehensive national surveys to qualify, quantify, and compare social capital based on relevant data regarding community participation, voting habits, and confidence in institutions.

According to the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics, social capital is beneficial on an individual, economic, and community level, as those with strong, wide, and trusting networks have been associated with:

  • better health
  • higher educational achievement
  • better employment outcomes
  • lower crime rates

Key research published by the OECD’s Robert Putnam in 2001, compiled state-by-state data based on social capital. His results indicated that:

  • U.S. states with higher social capital also had better-functioning schools, better child welfare, less kids watching TV, lower murder rates, less pugnaciousness, better health, less tax evasions, more tolerance, and better economic equality.
  • Community membership, philanthropy, and trust in the late 90s saw a four decade-long decline.
  • States closer to Canada demonstrated higher social capital.

It’s important to note that social capital can just as easily be used for destructive means when networks are used to strengthen, for example, terrorist bonds or political corruption. Essentially, value of social capital depends on its quality and ethics.

In an increasingly connected world, the dynamics of networks, groups, and communication are increasingly shifting to the Internet, though research suggests that the web neither increases or decreases social capital significantly — just incorporates it into social habit.

What it all means

Researchers are keeping a close eye on how the world we live in impacts social capital, and vice versa. But in spite of correlations with economic inequality, there is no way to know all of the factors that contribute to dwindling trust.

As shown by the relationship between social capital and happy and healthy living, it is likely in everyone’s best interest to maintain decent personal and group connections, be they digital or otherwise.

Confidence in institutions and trust in one another, however, may be less easy to mend.

We measure success by the understanding we deliver. If you could express it as a percentage, how much fresh understanding did we provide?
Jennifer Markert