Trust and Social Bonds: Faith in Others and Policy Outcomes Reconsidered

Publication Date:
Jan 2004
Project Programs:
Social, Political, and Economic Inequality

Rodney Hero (2003) argues that advocates of social capital may have been too optimistic about its impact on public policy. Hero argues that states with high levels of social capital generally have worse outcomes for minority groups rather than better outcomes. So, social capital is at best a mixed blessing. It works well for whites, but not so well for minority groups in America. I suggest that Hero's pessimism may be misplaced for one key component of social capital, generalized trust. Generalized trust is a moral value that connects people to others who may be different from themselves. At the individual level, it is a key determinant of tolerance and support for policies that aid minorities and the poor, as I have found (see Uslaner 2003). When I disaggregate social capital and consider only measures of generalized trust for the American states in the 1980s, the negative consequences of this part of social capital vanish and turn into positive effects for minorities. States high on trust have lower levels of relative minority suspension ratios (using a recalculated index rather than the one Hero uses), black suspension ratios, African-American emotional disturbances, black special learning disabilities, overall poverty rates, and African-American poverty rates. Such states also have higher average AFDC payments per recipient. Such states also have higher levels of some forms of political participation for African-Americans (as measured by statewide aggregate proportions from the Roper Social and Political Trends archive, which queried 200,000 Americans each year between 1973 and 1994 on a variety of political activities-providing a large enough national sample to obtain reliablt estimates for African-Americans in 29 states. States with high trust had higher levels of African-Americans writing letters to editors, writing newspaper articles, being organization members, and making public speeches. There are also similar, even larger, effects for many forms of participation for whites. It is overall trust, rather than the level of trust of African-American themselves, that shapes political participation for these activities, suggesting that African-Americans are more likely to participate in civic life when the whole community is more trusting of people unlike themselves.


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