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.”

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Associated Press Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta and AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.

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Online:

AP-GfK Poll: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com

General Social Survey: http://www3.norc.org/GSS+Website

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Follow Connie Cass on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ConnieCass

AP-GfK Poll: Election indicators suggest GOP edge

By, JENNIFER AGIESTA, Associated Press

(AP) – The latest Associated Press-GfK poll holds bad news for President Barack Obama, but as the November elections draw closer, there are ominous signs for congressional Democrats as well.

A look at the key findings from the March poll on this year’s election and the burgeoning 2016 presidential field.

GOP GAINING GROUND

Preferences for control of Congress are tight, but Republicans have gained on Democrats since January. Thirty-six percent in last month’s poll said they would rather see the Democrats in charge of Congress and 37 percent chose Republicans.

Democrats held a narrow advantage on that question in January, when 39 percent favored the Democrats and 32 percent the Republicans.

Democrats are in the majority in the Senate while Republicans run the House.

The shift stems largely from a change among those most interested in politics.

In the new poll, registered voters who are most strongly interested in politics favored the Republicans by 14 percentage points, 51 percent to 37 percent. In January, this group was about evenly split, with 42 percent preferring Democrats and 45 percent the Republicans.

That’s not the only positive sign in the poll for the Republicans.

Favorable views of the GOP have improved, with 38 percent overall now saying they hold a favorable impression of the Party. Republicans’ positive view of their own party has increased from 57 percent in January to 72 percent now.

Even impressions of the tea party movement have shifted more positive in recent months. GOP favorability still lags behind that of the Democrats, however, with 43 percent holding a favorable view of the Democratic Party.

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CONGRESSIONAL APPROVAL STAGNANT

Congressional approval is stagnant and negative, with just 16 percent saying they approve while 82 percent disapprove. Among those who have “a great deal” or “quite a bit” of interest in politics, 90 percent disapprove, including 61 percent who strongly disapprove.

Nearly 4 in 10 (39 percent) would like to see their own member of Congress re-elected, an improvement since January. Among registered voters who say they pay a great deal of attention to politics, 44 percent say they would like to see their current member re-elected, compared with 33 percent in January.

Here, there’s a glimmer of hope for Democrats. Those who consider themselves Democrats are now more likely than Republicans to say their own member of Congress ought to be re-elected. Not all Democrats live in districts represented by Democrats, of course, but it represents a shift in opinion since January.

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WHO’S IN CHARGE

With control of Congress divided between the parties, most Americans say Obama has a lot or quite a bit of control over what the federal government does, outpacing the share who say the Democrats or Republicans in Congress are in control.

Partisans tend to see the opposition as the controlling force, with Republicans more apt than Democrats to see Obama in charge, and Democrats more likely to say the Republicans have the upper hand.

Six in 10 (62 percent) of those with a great deal or quite a bit of interest in politics say Obama has a lot or quite a bit of control of what the federal government does. Just half (51 percent) of those closely attuned to politics say Democrats in Congress exert a similar influence over what the federal government does and 40 percent say the same about Republicans in Congress.

There’s little change since December in which party Americans trust more to handle major issues.

Democrats’ strong points are on handling social issues, including same-sex marriage (31 percent prefer Democrats, 17 percent the Republicans) and abortion (30 percent prefer Democrats, 22 percent Republicans). Republicans have the edge on protecting the country, 34 percent to 16 percent, a slightly wider margin than they held on the question in December.

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LOOKING TO 2016? NOT SO MUCH

The poll measured impressions of 19 potential 2016 presidential candidates, and found that a majority of those surveyed offered an opinion about just seven of them. The other 12 have quite a lot of introducing themselves to do if they are to make a run for the White House.

Most people said either they hadn’t heard of them or skipped the question.

Hillary Rodham Clinton generated the most positive response of the bunch, with 46 percent viewing the former secretary of state and first lady favorably and 39 percent unfavorably.

Among potential GOP contenders, none generated a net positive reaction from the public, with 2012 vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan faring best – 27 percent viewed him favorably, 29 percent unfavorably.

Among Republicans, majorities have favorable impressions of Ryan and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. But in a sign that the past isn’t always prologue, nearly half of Republicans say they don’t know enough to have an opinion about former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a large factor in the 2012 nomination fight.

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The AP-GfK Poll was conducted March 20-24, 2014 using KnowledgePanel, GfK’s probability-based online panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. It involved online interviews with 1,012 adults, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points for all respondents.

Respondents were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods, and were later interviewed online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn’t otherwise have access to the Internet were provided with the ability to access the Internet at no cost to them.

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AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.

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Online:

AP-GfK Poll: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com

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Follow Jennifer Agiesta on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/JennAgiesta


AP-GfK poll: Fans believe Florida will top tourney

NEW YORK (AP) — A new poll from The Associated Press and GfK says that the quarter of Americans who are following this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament believe the Gators are the overwhelming favorites to win it all.

Twenty-nine percent of those with at least some interest in March Madness think Billy Donovan’s Florida team will take home this year’s crown.

The poll also found about 5 percent of Americans are following news about the tournament extremely closely, 6 percent are following very closely and 14 percent somewhat closely.

The AP-GfK poll was conducted online March 20-24 among 1,019 adults from a probability-based panel. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.

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Online:

AP-GfK Poll: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com