By CONNIE CASS
WASHINGTON (AP) — You can take our word for it. Americans don’t trust each other anymore.
We’re not talking about the loss of faith in big institutions such as the government, the church or Wall Street, which fluctuates with events. For four decades, a gut-level ingredient of democracy — trust in the other fellow — has been quietly draining away.
These days, only one-third of Americans say most people can be trusted. Half felt that way in 1972, when the General Social Survey first asked the question.
Forty years later, a record high of nearly two-thirds say “you can’t be too careful” in dealing with people.
An AP-GfK poll conducted last month found that Americans are suspicious of each other in everyday encounters. Less than one-third expressed a lot of trust in clerks who swipe their credit cards, drivers on the road, or people they meet when traveling.
“I’m leery of everybody,” said Bart Murawski, 27, of Albany, N.Y. “Caution is always a factor.”
Does it matter that Americans are suspicious of one another? Yes, say worried political and social scientists.
What’s known as “social trust” brings good things.
A society where it’s easier to compromise or make a deal. Where people are willing to work with those who are different from them for the common good. Where trust appears to promote economic growth.
Distrust, on the other hand, seems to encourage corruption. At the least, it diverts energy to counting change, drawing up 100-page legal contracts and building gated communities.
Even the rancor and gridlock in politics might stem from the effects of an increasingly distrustful citizenry, said April K. Clark, a Purdue University political scientist and public opinion researcher.
“It’s like the rules of the game,” Clark said. “When trust is low, the way we react and behave with each other becomes less civil.”
There’s no easy fix.
In fact, some studies suggest it’s too late for most Americans alive today to become more trusting. That research says the basis for a person’s lifetime trust levels is set by his or her mid-twenties and unlikely to change, other than in some unifying crucible such as a world war.
People do get a little more trusting as they age. But beginning with the baby boomers, each generation has started off adulthood less trusting than those who came before them.
The best hope for creating a more trusting nation may be figuring out how to inspire today’s youth, perhaps united by their high-tech gadgets, to trust the way previous generations did in simpler times.
There are still trusters around to set an example.
Pennsylvania farmer Dennis Hess is one. He runs an unattended farm stand on the honor system.
Customers pick out their produce, tally their bills and drop the money into a slot, making change from an unlocked cashbox. Both regulars and tourists en route to nearby Lititz, Pa., stop for asparagus in spring, corn in summer and, as the weather turns cold, long-neck pumpkins for Thanksgiving pies.
“When people from New York or New Jersey come up,” said Hess, 60, “they are amazed that this kind of thing is done anymore.”
Hess has updated the old ways with technology. He added a video camera a few years back, to help catch people who drive off without paying or raid the cashbox. But he says there isn’t enough theft to undermine his trust in human nature.
“I’ll say 99 and a half percent of the people are honest,” said Hess, who’s operated the produce stand for two decades.
There’s no single explanation for Americans’ loss of trust.
The best-known analysis comes from “Bowling Alone” author Robert Putnam’s nearly two decades of studying the United States’ declining “social capital,” including trust.
Putnam says Americans have abandoned their bowling leagues and Elks lodges to stay home and watch TV. Less socializing and fewer community meetings make people less trustful than the “long civic generation” that came of age during the Depression and World War II.
University of Maryland Professor Eric Uslaner, who studies politics and trust, puts the blame elsewhere: economic inequality.
Trust has declined as the gap between the nation’s rich and poor gapes ever wider, Uslaner says, and more and more Americans feel shut out. They’ve lost their sense of a shared fate. Tellingly, trust rises with wealth.
“People who believe the world is a good place and it’s going to get better and you can help make it better, they will be trusting,” Uslaner said. “If you believe it’s dark and driven by outside forces you can’t control, you will be a mistruster.”
African-Americans consistently have expressed far less faith in “most people” than the white majority does. Racism, discrimination and a high rate of poverty destroy trust.
Nearly 8 in 10 African-Americans, in the 2012 survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago with principal funding from the National Science Foundation, felt that “you can’t be too careful.” That figure has held remarkably steady across the 25 GSS surveys since 1972.
The decline in the nation’s overall trust quotient was driven by changing attitudes among whites.
It’s possible that people today are indeed less deserving of trust than Americans in the past, perhaps because of a decline in moral values.
“I think people are acting more on their greed,” said Murawski, a computer specialist who says he has witnessed scams and rip-offs. “Everybody wants a comfortable lifestyle, but what are you going to do for it? Where do you draw the line?”
Ethical behavior such as lying and cheating are difficult to document over the decades. It’s worth noting that the early, most trusting years of the GSS poll coincided with Watergate and the Vietnam War. Trust dropped off in the more stable 1980s.
Crime rates fell in the 1990s and 2000s, and still Americans grew less trusting. Many social scientists blame 24-hour news coverage of distant violence for skewing people’s perceptions of crime.
Can anything bring trust back?
Uslaner and Clark don’t see much hope anytime soon.
Thomas Sander, executive director of the Saguaro Seminar launched by Putnam, believes the trust deficit is “eminently fixable” if Americans strive to rebuild community and civic life, perhaps by harnessing technology.
After all, the Internet can widen the circle of acquaintances who might help you find a job. Email makes it easier for clubs to plan face-to-face meetings. Googling someone turns up information that used to come via the community grapevine.
But hackers and viruses and hateful posts eat away at trust. And sitting home watching YouTube means less time out meeting others.
“A lot of it depends on whether we can find ways to get people using technology to connect and be more civically involved,” Sander said.
“The fate of Americans’ trust,” he said, “is in our own hands.”
Associated Press Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta and AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.
AP-GfK Poll: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com
General Social Survey: http://www3.norc.org/GSS+Website
Follow Connie Cass on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ConnieCass
By JENNIFER AGIESTA, Associated Press
Yet an Associated Press-GfK poll in October found more people tuning in to politics — warts and all — than tuning out.
It’s not a major election year, so day-to-day interest in following news about politics and elections was lower than at the height of last year’s presidential campaign. But just 11 percent said they’re less interested in politics today than four years ago, while 30 percent said they’re more interested than in 2009, before the birth of the tea party or the passage of the health insurance overhaul, when people were about twice as likely as they are now to say the country was heading in the right direction.
Although those who are increasingly attentive to politics now are more likely to identify with a political party than as political independents, they seem to buck a notable trend in Washington: Rather than reflecting the increasing polarization seen in Congress, they tend to mirror the positions of the overall American public. The poll suggests those paying more attention to politics these days hold similar views to Americans generally on a range of prominent issues: the health overhaul law, gun laws, illegal immigration, abortion, same-sex marriage and the seriousness of climate change.
Tuesday’s elections in New Jersey and Virginia also suggested a win for the ideological middle. According to exit polls conducted for The Associated Press, Virginia voters broadly rejected Republican Ken Cuccinelli as “too conservative,” and GOP Gov. Chris Christie trampled Democratic nominee Barbara Buono despite 57 percent of his state’s voters holding a negative impression of his party.
Those tuning out are less likely to see big differences between what the Democrats and Republicans stand for, a position that may reflect judgments about politicians’ motivations rather than their policies.
They frequently cite negativity in politics rather than specific positions as a reason for their distaste. One poll respondent said, “The Republicans are acting like babies. The Democrats are acting like babies. It’s unsettling and disgusting.” Another, “I get tired of hearing the bickering, and I don’t trust anything any of the politicians say.”
The AP-GfK Poll was conducted Oct. 3-7, 2013, and involved online interviews with 1,227 adults. The survey has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points for all respondents.
The survey was conducted using KnowledgePanel, a probability-based Internet panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. Panelists were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods and later interviewed for this survey online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn’t otherwise have access to the Internet were provided with the ability to access it at no cost to them.
AP-GfK Poll: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com
Follow Jennifer Agiesta on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/JennAgiesta
EDITOR’S NOTE _ Digits is Associated Press Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta’s take on the numbers that reflect our world and the survey research techniques used to find them.
By NEDRA PICKLER and JENNIFER AGIESTA, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Americans are finding little they like about President Barack Obama or either political party, according to a new poll that suggests the possibility of a “throw the bums out” mentality in next year’s midterm elections.
The AP-GfK poll finds few people approve of the way the president is handling most major issues and most people say he’s not decisive, strong, honest, reasonable or inspiring.
In the midst of the government shutdown and Washington gridlock, the president is faring much better than his party, with large majorities of those surveyed finding little positive to say about Democrats. The negatives are even higher for the Republicans across the board, with 4 out of 5 people describing the GOP as unlikeable and dishonest and not compassionate, refreshing, inspiring or innovative.
Negativity historically hurts the party in power — particularly when it occurs in the second term of a presidency — but this round seems to be hitting everyone. More people now say they see bigger differences between the two parties than before Obama was elected, yet few like what either side is offering. A big unknown: possible fallout from the unresolved budget battle in Washington.
The numbers offer warning signs for every incumbent lawmaker, and if these angry sentiments stretch into next year, the 2014 elections could feel much like the 2006 and 2010 midterms when being affiliated with Washington was considered toxic by many voters. In 2006, voters booted Republicans from power in the House and Senate, and in 2010, they fired Democrats who had been controlling the House.
“There needs to be a major change,” said Pam Morrison, 56, of Lincoln, Neb., among those who were surveyed. “I’m anxious for the next election to see what kind of new blood we can get.”
Morrison describes herself as a conservative Republican and said she is very concerned about how her adult children are going to afford insurance under Obama’s health care law. She places most of the blame for the shutdown on the president, but she also disapproves of the job Congress is doing. “I don’t think they’re working together,” Morrison said.
“Congress needs to take a look at their salaries, they need to take a cut to their salaries and they need to feel some of the pain the American people are feeling,” said Morrison, who is married to a government worker who she said has been deemed essential and is still on the job.
People across the political spectrum voiced disappointment.
Suzanne Orme, a 74-year-old retiree and self-described liberal who lives in California’s Silicon Valley, says the shutdown is more the Republican Party’s fault. “The Republicans seem to be a bunch of morons who aren’t going to give in for anything. I just don’t get it with them. They are just crazy,” she said.
But she also said she strongly disapproves of the way Obama is handling his job, and doesn’t find him likable, decisive, strong, honest, compassionate, refreshing, ethical, inspiring or reasonable. The only positive attribute she gave him was innovative.
“It sounds like he’s kind of weak. He says one thing and does another,” Orme said after taking the survey. For example, she said Obama hasn’t made good on his promise to close the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and changed his position on whether people should be penalized for failing to get health insurance.
“I voted for him, and he’s turned out to be a big disappointment,” she said. “I mean, what’s the alternative?” Orme said it just seems to her that Washington is run by lobbyists and consumed by financial greed.
A bad sign for Democrats is that Obama has bled support among independents — 60 percent disapprove of the way Obama is handling his job, while only 16 percent approve. As he began his second term in January, independents tilted positive, 48 percent approved and 39 percent disapproved.
Neither party can win without the support of independents, with only about a third of the poll’s respondents identifying themselves as Democrats and about a quarter as Republicans.
Obama has held onto support from Carol Cox, a 59-year-old independent from Hartville, Ohio, who says she feels the president helps people in need. She is happy to see his health care law that offers coverage to the uninsured and to people with pre-existing conditions, although she thinks the rollout could have been better. “I think he’s doing an OK job,” she said of the president.
But she is not happy with either party in Congress. She said the shutdown is affecting her family’s investments and she’s concerned about the future of Social Security. “I’m really angry and frustrated. I can’t believe how mad I am about this.”
As for next year’s congressional election, she said, “I would love to see just a total turnover.”
The AP-GfK Poll was conducted Oct. 3-7, 2013, using KnowledgePanel, GfK’s probability-based online panel. It involved online interviews with 1,227 adults and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points for all respondents.
The survey was designed to be representative of the U.S. population. Respondents to the survey were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods and later interviewed online. Those who didn’t otherwise have access to the Internet were provided with the ability to get online at no cost.
News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.
Online: AP-GfK Poll: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com
By NANCY BENAC and JENNIFER AGIESTA, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The debut of the government’s health insurance marketplaces drew a huge audience — and underwhelming reviews.
Just 7 percent of Americans say the rollout of the health exchanges has gone extremely well or very well, according to an AP-GfK poll.
The reaction was somewhat better among supporters of the new health care law, but still middling: 19 percent said the rollout went extremely well or very well.
Among the uninsured — a key audience for the health exchanges — 42 percent said they didn’t know enough to judge how well the rollout had gone, suggesting an ongoing lack of awareness about the program in its early days.
Despite the bumpy rollout, plenty of Americans are giving the system a try.
Seven percent of Americans reported that somebody in their household has tried to sign up for insurance through the health care exchanges, according to the poll.
While that’s a small percentage, it could represent more than 20 million people.
Three-fourths of those who tried to sign up reported problems, though, and that’s reflected in the poor reviews.
George Spinner, 60, a retired government worker from Ruther Glen, Va., said he managed to create an online account and password before he got stuck.
“It kept telling me there was an error,” he said.
Reynol Rodriguez, a computer technician from San Antonio, said he was able to do some comparison shopping online but computer glitches kept him from signing up.
“I was very much looking forward to it,” said Rodriguez, 51. “That’s what this country needs — affordable health care.”
Rodriguez pledged to keep trying — just what President Barack Obama has been recommending to those who’ve run into trouble.
Count Janice Brown, a semiretired travel agent from Prather, Calif., among those who had a positive experience.
After some initial trouble on the website, she got through to a help line and downloaded an application to buy a plan for $1,500 a month for herself and her husband. That’s $1,000 less than her current private plan.
“I’m thrilled,” said Brown, 61. “The coverage is better. It’s fantastic.”
Among those who’ve actually tested out the system, only about 1 in 10 succeeded in buying health insurance, the poll found. A quarter of those who tried to buy coverage weren’t sure whether they’d succeeded.
Overall, 40 percent of Americans said the launch of the insurance markets hasn’t gone well, 20 percent said it’s gone somewhat well and 30 percent didn’t know what to say. Just 7 percent said the launch had gone “very well” or “somewhat well.”
Even among those who support the president’s health care overhaul law, just 19 percent think the rollout has gone extremely well or very well. Forty percent say it’s gone somewhat well, and 18 percent think not too well or not well at all.
The survey offers an early snapshot on use of the new health insurance exchanges set up by states and the federal government under Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Thirty-six states are using the federal government’s site, HealthCare.gov, which the Obama administration says has had millions of unique visitors. The administration has declined to release enrollment statistics, saying that will be done monthly.
White House senior communications adviser Tara McGuinness said the administration is working around the clock “to improve the consumer experience,” and she stressed that the poll was taken just six days into a campaign over the coming months to educate people about their options.
She added, “The overwhelming attention from millions of Americans checking out HealthCare.gov during the first few days is a good testament to the interest of Americans in new affordable health options.”
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that about 7 million uninsured people will gain coverage through the online insurance marketplaces next year, but the role of the markets is actually much bigger than that.
They were intended to be a 21st century portal to coverage for people who do not have access to health insurance on the job. And that includes insured people as well as the uninsured.
There are three big groups of potential customers for the markets: uninsured middle-class people who now will be able to get government-subsidized private coverage; people who currently purchase their own individual policies and are looking for better deals; and low-income people who will be steered by the marketplace to an expanded version of Medicaid in states that agree to expand that safety net program.
The Census Bureau has estimated that about 48 million Americans lacked coverage in 2012, or more than 15 percent of the population.
Starting next year, the law requires virtually all Americans to have insurance or face a tax penalty after a coverage gap of three months.
Opinions are sharply divided on the overall framework of the law: 28 percent of Americans support it, 38 percent are opposed, and 32 percent don’t have an opinion either way, the poll found. When asked specifically whether the government should be able to require all Americans to buy insurance or face a fine, only about 3 in 10 Americans agreed, and 68 percent were opposed.
The AP-GfK Poll was conducted Oct. 3-7 using KnowledgePanel, GfK’s probability-based online panel. It involved online interviews with 1,227 adults. The survey has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points for all respondents. For results among the 76 respondents who attempted to use health insurance markets, the margin of error is plus or minus 13.5 percentage points.
Associated Press writers Andrew Miga and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, and News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.