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Did the Great Recession Create an (Interpersonal) Bond Crisis?

Our reserves of trust can be affected by economic conditions. So two sociologists looked at how those reserves fared in communities hardest hit by the recession.
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“It’s the economy, stupid.” That catchphrase from Bill Clinton’s 1984 campaign took on a second life in the 2012 presidential election, where it was assumed (incorrectly) that the continuing downturn fore-doomed Barack Obama’s re-election. But a good question may be “which economy?”—the one reported on network news or the one occurring in your hometown?

Stanford sociologists Lindsay A. Owens and Karen S. Cook (a veritable savant on the subject of trust) asked that question as part of a larger look at how our trust in institutions and in each other fared during the Great Recession. It’s pretty well established that overall Americans’ trust in key institutions—the presidency, Congress, big business, banks—took a beating during, and almost certainly as a result of, the recession. Less studied are both how that played out in particularly hard-hit communities or how our confidence in each other waxed or waned alongside our wallets.

To get at those findings, Owens and Cook overlaid survey results taken in 2006, 2008, and 2010 with the counties where those respondents lived, then sorted the counties by measures of changing income, employment, poverty, and public assistance.

Past research suggested that in the depths of the Great Recession Americans were indeed less trusting of their neighbors, but when times improved so did their trust.

They report in a new special edition of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science that if you hail from a newly minted economic wasteland, your opinion of the federal government and of organized labor likely is markedly lower than the national average. While that lower opinion might seems obvious, mistrust of banks and business is not notably lower in these areas—it’s at the same low, low level seen nationally. And also know that while aggregate trust in the federal government had fallen a lot by 2008, by 2010 that bruised confidence was healing, perhaps, the authors speculate, as a result of its efforts to mitigate the recession’s economic damage.

The authors suggest that in the same way if you’re still out of work it’s still a recession, economic definitions be damned, the failure of supposed helpers, i.e. unions and Uncle Sam, to remedy your specific plight weighs on your opinion.

How bad times play out between people is less intuitive. For example, other research finds that unemployment during the Great Recession didn’t produce more divorces, but home foreclosure—but only among those with high school diplomas and above—did. So, is it times are tough, so every person for themselves, or is it times are tough, we’ve all got to pull together to ride it out? On a national level, past research suggested that in the depths of the Great Recession Americans were indeed less trusting of their neighbors, but when times improved so did their trust. “Specifically, we find that perceptions of one’s personal economic situation and retrospective assessments of national economy help predict levels of interpersonal trust,” three academics from Vanderbilt led by Daniel Zizumbo-Colunga wrote in 2010. (They also found that when the unemployed eventually did land a job, they then were much more likely to join an outside group, which is good news for those worried about our stockpiles of social capital—i.e., there's less bowling alone.)

Again, what about at a local level? It’s a mixed, but understandable, bag. As employment falls, we don’t tend to lose trust in our neighbors, but when poverty rates increase, we do. And when (or if) public assistance kicks in, that’s “associated with a small increase of perceptions on interpersonal trust,” the researchers write, “perhaps because the assistance is implemented locally.” In other words, I’m not reading about the safety net catching someone, I’m seeing it live.

These findings on personal trust will not be the final word on what the Great Recession has done to our personal bonds. In a speech made before the recession, Robert Putnam—the “bowling alone” guy—asked if a multi-ethnic society might see more “hunkering down” amid our own kind, thus predisposing us to less trust, altruism, and cooperation—especially when times are tough and scapegoats are in vogue. As Owens and Cook wrote:

There is some evidence (in analyses not reported here) that those who became unemployed during the recession spent significantly more time with friends in the counties with the highest rates of unemployment and poverty. This finding could provide support for the general notion of “hunkering down,” which makes sense in this context both for economic and for social reasons. It is an open question whether this trend had effects on local social cohesion, positive or negative. In the most blighted counties social cohesion may not be that high to begin with.