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Rebuilding Trust in our Communities

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

By William Hatcher

Over the past forty years, Americans have become less trustful of our major public institutions, and today, individuals are even less trustful of one another. This lack of trust seems to be the most pronounced in America’s young. A recent poll by Harvard’s Institute of Politics found millennials (people from the ages of 18 to 29) to hold little trust in vital public institutions, but they also do not trust one another. Millennials and the public in general do not trust the president, Congress, the courts, religious institutions, the media and other important components of our nation. The dangerously low level of trust, especially among our young adults, is a significant problem for the practice of community development.

As I’ve discussed in earlier columns (e.g., my argument for the Tupelo Model of development), trust is a key feature of a community’s social capital—its level of social connectedness. According to Robert Putnam and other social capital experts, communities need citizens to practice trust, empathy and reciprocity. These practices are needed by citizens to help them negotiate a communitywide vision and then implement the strategies to achieve that goal.

Declining Trust

In 1973, roughly 70 percent of Americans stated that they had “a great deal or a fair amount” of trust in Congress. Today, the percentage has dropped to just barely over 30 percent. Recently, Congress has had approval ratings below 10 percent. This has caused Senate John McCain to joke that the only people who like them (members of Congress) are their staff and family members. A plethora of factors are to blame for this washing away of public trust, such as the backlash against the growth of the federal government after WWII, public scandals weakening the confidence people hold in government and more recently, the gridlock due to the nation’s historic levels of political polarization.

Social trust (i.e., our trust in one another) has also declined significantly. A 2013 poll by the AP-GFK found that around one-third of Americans state, “most people can’t be trusted.” The percentage of Americans not trusting others has doubled since the early 1970s. The 2013 poll found that Americans are less trusting of people that they interact with on a daily basis. For example, today, people are more cautious about sharing financial information with others and dealing with people while traveling than in the past.

Trust and Community Development

hatcher mayA lack of trust and social capital makes it difficult for communities to make collective decisions. When individuals no longer trust people that are key parts of our daily routines, it is difficult for citizens to muster the level of trust needed to develop community plans and trust one another when implementing those plans. In 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville observed our success as a young nation was due to America being, as he wrote, “a nation of joiners.”  Citizens (albeit a less democratic definition of citizens than the one we enjoy today) cared about civic issues and came together in social groups to discuss and solve the problems of their communities. However, empirical research, the most well known of course being Putnam’s Bowling Alone, has traced a decline in this type of social connectedness. Due to this decline, in many ways, we cannot be called a nation of joiners any longer.

In addition, social capital and trust has an effect on the education and quality of a community’s workforce (its human capital). Writing in the Journal of Socio-Economics, Yuan K. Chou describes how social capital and trust can have an effect on the human capital of a community. Chou references a number of peer-reviewed studies showing that families with higher levels of social capital are more likely to have children that attend and complete high school, leading to a more educated workforce.

Declining levels of trust will hurt our community development efforts by making it more difficult for us to collectively make decisions and by weakening the human capital in our communities.

Rebuilding Trust

There is a silver lining to the dark trends discussed so far. Even as individuals have lost their confidence in the federal government and their states, local governments have been able to maintain a respectable level of trust. This is encouraging because community development is a regional and local matter and is often coordinated by local governments. Given this, a practical model of redeveloping trust can be developed and implemented by our local governments, based on contextual factors.

The following are potential components of such a practical model:

  • Engage youth leaders by creating youth advisory boards to local elected officials.
  • Encourage citizens to volunteer in civic organizations and develop incentives for this involvement.
  • Strengthen political capital by encouraging qualified members of the community to run for elective office.
  • Improve the quality of local involvement in public decisions by making citizens boards more professional.
  • Ensure transparency in government by clearly communicating with citizens through town forums, participatory meetings and positive relations with the local news outlets.

Local governments can foster social capital in development by including citizens, in a meaningful way, in the development process; ensuring that the various parts of a community are represented and demonstrating the value of face-to-face civic meetings. Through these types of social interactions in the pursuit of common civic goals, citizens may rebuild trust in one another and help cultivate social capital in their communities.

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