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Column: How America raised a generation of ‘low trusters’

For the Valley News
Published: 3/15/2021 10:10:13 PM
Modified: 3/15/2021 10:10:12 PM

A recent op-ed by New York Times columnist Charles Blow included a link to a July 2019 Pew Charitable Trust study on the levels of trust Americans have in government and in each other. Blow’s column examined the data by racial categories, concluding that Black Americans’ reluctance to be vaccinated is a result of their distrust in the government and their fellow Americans.

In reviewing the Pew data, however, I was astonished to find an even greater disparity in trust levels among generations, a disparity that leads to a more dire problem for the future of our country.

While each of the four generations profiled in the Pew study have roughly equal levels of “medium trusters,” the “high truster” group diminishes with each successive generation and the “low truster” group grows. My 65-plus generation has 37% who are identified as having high trust in each other and the government. The 50-65 generation has 25% in that group, the 30-49 generation has 19%, and in the youngest generation, the 18-29 year-old group, only 11% are “high trusters,” lower than any group for which data was collected.

The “low truster” percentages go the other direction, with only 19% of my cohort identified as having low trust in each other and the government with the 50-65 group at 31%, the 30-49 group at 39%, and the youngest group registering the highest distrust level of all — an astonishing 46%!

I am not at all surprised at these findings. My 65-plus cohort came of age after the end of World War II, where democracy prevailed over totalitarianism, and in an economy where our parents lived in relative affluence after growing up in the Great Depression. During the two decades when my generation came of age, the 1950s and 1960s, our governments constructed thousands of miles of interstate highways, built thousands of new houses and hundreds of public schools, hired thousands of workers, put a man on the moon and passed landmark legislation to address segregation and poverty.

Those in the 50-65 cohort grew up in more troubled times. In the early 1970s, our military left Vietnam without a victory and the “Pentagon Papers” revealed the government’s actions that led us into that conflict. We also experienced President Richard Nixon’s Watergate break-in and cover-up, conflicts over school desegregation in the North and the South, and Ronald Reagan’s rise to power based on the premise that “government is the problem.” We began hearing the message that paying any taxes was a burden, that all regulations were “cumbersome” and “job-killing” and that offering a helping hand to those in need would create a class of dependents. It is no surprise that trust in the government and each other diminished during that era.

Those in the 30-49 generation heard Reagan’s anti-government message throughout their lifetimes, saw an end to “welfare as we know it,” heard an insistence that we needed to downsize bureaucracies in business and government and watched jobs get outsourced. President Bill Clinton’s conduct in office and the subsequent attacks on him by the GOP further diminished the nation’s confidence in the presidency and government in general. Given all that happened in their formative years, it is not surprising that trust in the government and in each other diminished.

But trust plummeted even lower for the 18-29 generation. They not only grew up with the anti-government rhetoric of previous generations, but lived through the Columbine shootings and Sept. 11. During their youth, they were convinced that they needed to be on guard every minute of every day, that 24-7 surveillance was necessary to avoid a repeat of the terror attacks on the Twin Towers and schools needed armed guards, locked doors and mounted cameras to avoid invasions by shooters. In such a fear-driven environment, it is unsurprising that trust in each other was undercut. The government’s gridlock from 2010 onward contributed to that lack of faith.

There was some good news in the survey: 84% of Americans “believe it is possible to improve the level of confidence people have in the government.”

Notwithstanding all that has happened since that survey was completed in 2019, as a 65-plus “high truster,” I am hopeful that President Joe Biden and other elected officials across the country will be able to restore faith in the government and trust in each other. One step voters could take is to support rebuilding our infrastructure, an action that would require more government spending at all levels. Growing up in post-World War II America, it felt like the community was looking out for us. Our local and state governments built us new schools and ballfields and volunteers helped underwrite and staff community centers and swimming pools. Service clubs bought our Little League teams new uniforms and supported clubs at school. Parents and community members coached us, directed plays, advised clubs at the YMCA, and filled the bleachers at sporting events. We heard that the future of our country depended on us, and saw tangible evidence that the community believed it.

If we want the next generation to have greater trust in the government and in each other, we need to show children they are our future. When politicians say children are important but fail to provide the money needed for all of them to attend a decent school, live in a decent home, or have sufficient food, it is no surprise that they think the government is failing them and that adults — and especially politicians — cannot be trusted. If we want to build trust in future generations, we need to invest accordingly.

Wayne Gersen lives in Etna.

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