Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

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

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

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

Article excerpt

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 m ay 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 stales also have higher average AFDC payments per recipient. Such stales 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 slates. Slates with high trust had higher levels of African-Americans writing letters Io edilors, 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.

Social capital is reputed to be a magic elixir for what ails our societies (Putnam 2000). It makes us healthier, wealthier, and perhaps even wiser. It is the font of a communitarian spirit that makes us look out for our fellow citizens and to work with each other, rather than against each other. Its benefits have likely been oversold-particularly the source of these benefits seems misspecified.

The linkage between membership in civic groups and more redistributive policies seems murky at best. Why should lots of people joining bowling leagues or local Republican party organizations lead to better outcomes for minority groups? The logic here is not clear. But there is a more direct link with generalized trust, which I have elsewhere (Uslaner 2002: 1) called "the chicken soup of social life." Generalized trust encompasses the belief that people who are different from us nevertheless are part of our "moral communities." We have a responsiblitity for taking care of the less fortunate; and countries with high levels of trust spend more on transfer payments from the rich to the poor and more on "redistributive" programs such as education (Uslaner 2002: chs. 7, 8).

Rodney Hero (2003) challenges these assumptions. He argues that social capital may be a blessing but its benefits accrue mostly to the majority (white) members of society. He presents hitherto unexplored data on outcomes for minority populations in the American states and argues that higher levels of social capital do not consistently lead to better outcomes for minorities. Sometimes high levels of social capital are associated with more racial policy inequality.

Hero's article is an important contribution and it clearly points out some limitations in the development of the literature on social capital more generally and trust in particular. …

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