Looking back on 2013, it’s striking how politically polarized America has become. Political divisions are often attributed to politicians, but beneath all the sound and fury is a deeper problem. Americans do not trust one another as much as they used to. And the reasons are not as simple as some people think.
A recent poll taken by AP-Gfk found that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe “you can’t be too careful” in dealing with people. Given the bad economy this may not be surprising, but that number is a record high. In 1972 only half of Americans felt distrustful, and the economy wasn’t so hot then, either.
Other indicators show that trust is down. A Gallup poll found a record-high 72 percent of Americans naming “big government” as the greatest threat to the country’s future. Other institutions such as volunteer associations are suffering too. Scholars like Robert Putnam have long known that America’s “social capital,” including trust, has been on the decline, but it seems to be getting worse.
What’s causing the decline of social trust? Undoubtedly the prolonged economic recession is a contributing factor. Loss of income and difficulties finding a job will always leave people frustrated. But there are deeper causes, and scholars disagree over what they are. Mr. Putnam places the blame on technology (TV) and the isolating effects of suburban life. University of Maryland Professor Eric Uslaner blames economic inequality. Trust, he says, has declined as the gap between rich and poor has increased.
Inequality may be a contributing factor, but we have to be careful about confusing cause and effect. Income inequality may actually be caused by variations in social and personal capital. A wealthy banker living in Manhattan not only enjoys advantages in education, skills and work habits, but also benefits from a highly effective social networking system.
A low-income person living in a crime-ridden neighborhood, on the other hand, often not only lacks such education, skills and work attitudes, but also lives in a community in which basic civic support systems (families, churches, volunteer associations) are either weak or broken.
Yes, these different people have dissimilar incomes, but that can be attributed mostly to the attitudes and habits they acquired from their families, schools and neighborhoods, not from an insufficient redistribution of income by the government.
Unfortunately, these differences may now be hardening into class attitudes, something that has bedeviled Europeans for centuries, but which Americans have happily lacked for most of their history.
Increasingly the “rich” supposedly get that way because they are corrupt or behave unethically. A banker is seen as a “cheat” and a CEO as a “thief.” The normal virtues of the American dream — ambition, hard work and discipline — are devalued as mere “tricks,” as wealth is attributed mainly to “greed.” Some Americans no longer aspire to wealth by hard work, because it is seen as a waste of time. Instead, they are content merely to survive by living off what government can take from the rich.
Why does this matter? Low social trust means less civic cooperation. Instead of neighborhoods solving problems themselves, they turn to government, which as those poll numbers showed, is not trusted either.
People get caught in a downward spiral of distrust and hopelessness. They insist that the government do more to solve their problems, even though they don’t hold out much hope that it will actually succeed. They also start looking upon their neighbors as members of some rival class, political party, ethnic or even racial group with which they are competing to receive some government benefit or special protection.
These are dead-end attitudes. No amount of direct wealth transfer from the government can ever make up for what a young man or woman lacks in education, skills and attitudes to compete in the marketplace.
• Kim R. Holmes is a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation. His most recent book is "Rebound: Getting America Back to Great."