WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Is community trust a luxury in America? Gallup data offer some support for that idea -- 82% of those making $90,000 per year or more say they would expect a neighbor who found a lost wallet or purse containing $200 to return it. In contrast, 50% of those making less than $24,000 per year expressed this kind of trust in their neighbors.
These findings are consistent with previous state-level findings showing that states with higher per-capita income levels also tend to have higher proportions of residents who express trust in their neighbors.
More Education, More Trust
More highly educated people are also more likely to express trust in their neighbors. Whereas 81% of those with an advanced degree say they believe their neighbor would return their lost wallet, 48% of those without a high school diploma express the same sentiment.
Although education is closely related to income, more analysis clearly shows that education is related to expressions of trust regardless of income. In every income category, those who are more highly educated are more likely to say their neighbor would return a lost wallet. In the lowest income category, for example, the "trust gap" between the least educated group and the most highly educated group was 27 percentage points. In the highest income category, the gap was 20 points.
How Race Is Related to Trust
Race is also strongly related to trust in one's neighbors. On average, non-Hispanic blacks and Hispanics are less likely to say they would trust a neighbor to return their wallet with the money in it than are whites and Asians.
Again, the gaps don't just reflect the differences in average income among the groups. In high- and low-income categories, the "trust gap" between blacks and whites is at least 20 points. In fact, in the two lowest income groups, the gap is at least 30 points. Hispanics are also less likely to express trust than whites, with gaps of 13 point to29 points across all income groups. Finally, the gap between whites and Asians is at least 10 points in every income group.
Trust Comes With Time and Age
Averaging across all ethnic groups, older people are more likely than their younger counterparts to say they would trust a neighbor to return their wallet with the money in it. A slight majority (55%) of those aged 29 and younger say so, and this figure increases steadily among higher age groups. Among those aged 65 and older, 3 in 4 (75%) express confidence that their neighbor would return the wallet complete with its contents.
Women and Men About Equally Trusting
The only demographic variable examined here that is unrelated to trust is gender. Sixty-eight percent of women and men expressed confidence that their neighbor would return their money. The only hint of a meaningful gender difference in these data showed up among the youngest respondents. Among those aged 29 and younger, 57% of men and 53% of women expressed trust in their neighbor.
It All Adds Up
We can get an idea of the total effect of income, education, race, and age on Americans' likelihood of trusting their neighbors by looking at people whose characteristics all predict whether they will express such trust. At one extreme are young, black respondents who do not have a high school education and who fall into the lowest income category; among this group, 17% say a neighbor would return their wallet with the money in it. At the other demographic extreme, the oldest group of non-Hispanic whites who have an advanced degree and make at least $90,000 per year, 90% report that their neighbors would return a lost wallet.
The additive nature of these effects is also a reminder that trust is a two-way street. Reports of trust have to do with properties of those who ponder losing their wallets and properties of those who consider returning them. People with lower incomes, for example, are more likely to live in neighborhoods with high crime rates, which may help explain their relative lack of trust. In other words, people who say they trust their neighbors are not merely expressing trust in a social vacuum. They are also describing the actual people who live in the house or apartment next door.
The Gallup data point to considerable "trust deficits" among Americans who are less financially secure, or more likely to have faced racial biases. This information is important for two reasons.
First, a growing body of research shows that social connections are important to individuals' personal wellbeing, so a lack of trust may reduce opportunities to build friendships among those who need them most.
Second, low levels of trust among neighbors in a community may be a result of residents' low socioeconomic status, but they may also help perpetuate it. In other words, close neighborhood ties may give people access to resources and opportunities they wouldn't otherwise have. People may be more likely to start a business in their area, for example, if they can find trusted partners to share the risk.
For these reasons, those seeking to increase opportunities for disadvantaged Americans in at-risk communities may want to consider how many people in a given community lack trust in their neighbors.
Results are based on telephone interviews with more than 238,000 national adults, aged 18 and older, surveyed between Sept. 4, 2008 and Oct. 31, 2009. Sample sizes for the main demographic groups range from a low of 3,221 Asians to a high of 123,543 respondents with a high school education. Margins of error thus range from ±2 percentage points for Asians to less than ±1 percentage point for most other demographic groups.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones (for respondents with a landline telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell phone only and cell phone mostly).
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.