It makes sense that trust in corporations and government would plummet after a devastating global recession. But the idea of social capital–a concept that the World Bank started researching in the ‘90s–is a much bigger societal force than just faith in institutions. In one sense, social capital is a basic feature of democracy, the soil that nurtures people working together towards a common goal. In a neighborhood, for example, it could be the likelihood that your neighbors know you and have your back. Yet as Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam explained in his 2000 book Bowling Alone, social capital is on the decline and has been for several decades.
There are lots of theories as to why. But when San Diego State University social scientist Jean Twenge started poking around for clues, she came across a strange and consistent link: Over the last 40 years, certain measures of social capital have fallen during periods of high income inequality and poverty.
Twenge describes herself as a generational researcher. In 2006, she published a book on millennials called Generation Me, a tome that grew out of her work measuring attitudes around individualism in Gen Y. But when it came to looking for answers on social capital, Twenge found that two key aspects of the stuff–our trust in institutions and trust in one another–had significantly declined since the ‘70s, when surveys started measuring that sort of thing. By 2012, these indicators of social capital had hit record lows.
To Twenge, the last decade’s rapidly fading confidence in all institutions–including the medical establishment, despite major advances in health care–came as a surprise. Compared to Watergate and the Clinton years, Twenge argues that institutional scandals of the 21st century of late have been downright mild. “You look at this time period, where you don’t have [too many] major scandals, not a very high crime rate, and yet you find this low trust in others,” Twenge says. “It’s a little bit of a mystery. So you have to ask: What’s common about this time period?”
High measures of income inequality and poverty were both factors that synced up with the trend, even when Twenge controlled for other important variables. “It could be that in a society that is less equal, people are less willing to trust others,” Twenge says. “It may seem unfair that the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. There has been more attention paid to that. The phrase ‘the 1%’ didn’t exist five years ago.”
Still, Twenge’s research, published in the journal Psychological Science, can’t prove that income inequality causes the erosion of social capital. It could be the other way around–that, somehow, less social capital leads to more income inequality. There could also be a slew of factors, like new technologies or human conflict, that drive the dips in social capital instead.
On a psychological level, though, decreased trust that results from growing income inequality does make a lot of sense. Last week, the Federal Reserve reported that the gap between the richest and poorest Americans actually grew during the post-recession recovery. Between 2007 and 2010, the median income for every tax bracket fell–except for the top 10% of earners. If the recession spurred increased awareness of economic injustice, but the recovery perpetuated those same imbalances of power, it’s not hard to understand why many people might recognize the dissonance and lose hope.