A few years back, I wrote a book titled Distrust, American Style: Diversity and the Crisis of Public Confidence. (Still available on Amazon–hint, hint…). The book was a response–a rebuttal, actually–to arguments advanced by Robert Putnam (better known for Bowling Alone), who had theorized that rising levels of distrust were a response to Americans’ growing diversity.
My own research suggested otherwise. Certainly, living in urban areas populated with lots of folks who look and act differently from you can generate some anxiety, but my reading suggested a different culprit: insecurity, exacerbated by crime and the lack of a social safety net.
A telling comparison can be drawn between the U.S. and Canada, countries with very similar cultural roots and environments. Canadians watch American television, read many of the same newspapers and magazines, and even have relatively high gun ownership rates–but far less crime and social distrust. What Canada does have that U.S. Americans do not is a strong social safety net, and most importantly, universal health care.
A recent study provides further evidence of the connection between economic security and social trust.
Greater income inequality, the team found, was correlated with lower trust in others, while greater poverty, more violent crime, and an improving stock market were linked with less confidence in institutions.
We might expect that people who live in constant fear that they are one illness away from bankruptcy, who live in neighborhoods where jobs are scarce and crime is rampant, would become wary and distrustful.
Ironically, however, income inequality is equally likely to create distrust and fear in wealthier precincts. Gated communities, booming sales of security cameras, the rise in “private” police, all testify to the insecurity of the well-to-do.
Poor people fear disaster; rich people fear poor people. And no one trusts anyone.
But hey–our taxes are lower than ever.