Trust and Citizen Engagement in Metropolitan Philadelphia: A Case Study
Introduction and Summary
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s that “nothing … deserves more attention” in the fledgling United States than the immense variety and number of civic associations to which Americans belonged. Engagement in these associations appeared to reflect a unique degree of social trust and to promote a connectedness among citizens that fostered sensible government, thriving commerce, and cooperative communities.
Over the past few years, amid growing cynicism and the apparent disengagement of many Americans from political and civic activities, opinion surveys have found a steady decline in social trust — a decline that seemed emblematic of a general feeling that the overall quality of American life was deteriorating.
To examine this proposition in greater depth, the Pew Charitable Trusts commissioned an extensive study of Philadelphia area residents and a parallel study of Americans nationwide that focused on trust, citizen engagement and their interrelationship.
The results, which are presented in this report, indicate that there is a considerable reservoir of “social capital” in the historic City of Brotherly Love, its suburbs and, indeed, across the United States.
Pew Research Center for The People & The Press
Alarm about declining citizen engagement and dwindling “social capital” in the country may be overstated, based on an in-depth survey of the experiences and attitudes of Philadelphia area residents. Most Philadelphians are active participants in the social and civic lives of their neighborhoods and communities. Many volunteer their time and give their money to charitable causes. Moreover, there is little indication of social isolationism. Residents of the Philadelphia area engage in a variety of informal social activities that are the basis of interpersonal support networks. Merely one in ten, mostly the poor and elderly, say they have virtually no one to whom to turn for personal support.
The survey of 2,517 adults in Philadelphia and four of its neighboring counties1 also found a large majority of residents confident that people like themselves can make their communities better places in which to live. Most believe that on their own they could contact a local official to take up a problem, if the need arose. These views are supported by the significant percentages of people who reported that they had helped organize groups to improve conditions in their neighborhood, community or schools.
A companion nationwide poll that carried key indicators from the principal survey found that behaviors and attitudes observed in Philadelphia are for the most part typical of the nation as a whole.
The portrait observed contrasts considerably with the picture of citizenry painted by Harvard Professor Robert D. Putnam in his famous essay, “Bowling Alone”, and elsewhere. He argues that the “vibrancy” of American civil society has declined over the past several decades, measured not only in fewer bowling leagues and more individual bowling, but also in political activities such as voter turnout, and in membership in voluntary organizations from the Boy Scouts to the League of Women Voters. He observes that social and civic engagement and trust are strongly related, and together, the decrease in trust and engagement represents a decrease in the nation’s “social capital” or its capacity to collectively solve problems.2
While Putnam’s concerns about a crisis in citizen engagement are not borne out by the results of the survey, the Pew Research Center study did uncover substantial levels of interpersonal distrust among residents of the City of Brotherly Love and its environs, and even greater distrust of Philadelphia area institutions. Most residents are cautious in their contacts with other people. Less than half say they have a lot of trust in neighbors, co-workers and fellow club-members. Suspicion of strangers is fueled not only by fear of crime, but also by concerns about dishonesty and the potential for being manipulated and exploited.
However, the survey of Philadelphia and the companion nationwide survey found less distrust of others than observed in other recent polls.3
More Wary Than Distrusting
To put this in perspective, the results of the new survey describe a Philadelphia public that is more wary than distrusting. Most respondents (54%) said that one can’t be too careful in dealing with other people, but a larger majority (64%) said other people try to be fair (rather than try to take advantage) and a similar majority (57%) said that most times people try to be helpful (rather than just looking out for themselves).
Although wariness best characterizes Philadelphians as a whole, the survey did find that social distrust is much higher in the city proper than in its suburbs. Most city residents are not only cautious of strangers, but do not have a lot of trust in neighbors, co-workers or casual social acquaintances. Substantially more distrust exists among blacks than whites. Education and age are important factors as well; the older, more educated and more affluent respondents were more trusting. At the other extreme, poorly educated young whites and young blacks are extremely distrustful of other people.
Fear of Lying
Social distrust is as much predicated on fear of manipulation and exploitation as fear of crime. In open-ended follow up questions respondents as often said they are distrustful of others because of dishonesty and of human nature being what it is, as said they are wary of other people because of crime. The most distrustful people identified by the survey placed more emphasis on dishonesty and human nature.
The Pew survey calls into question the meaning and implications of interpersonal distrust in relation to citizen engagement. The survey found that trust in others bears only a small relationship to community involvement once a person’s age, education and income are taken into account.4 Volunteering is even less directly correlated with trust. Background characteristics such as education and age explain these behaviors much more persuasively. Factors such as feelings of personal empowerment, a strong support network, home ownership, and parent’s history of volunteerism are all considerably more significant in explaining volunteer and civic participation than how trusting people say they are of others.
A Social Ill Whose Relevance Is Unclear
A general distrust of others is an obvious social ill. However, its direct relevance to the way people act is unclear. Groups that are highly distrustful are civically disengaged, but other aspects of their lives and background contributed more than distrust to that disengagement. For the moderately distrustful, moreover, this attitude is not a barrier to good citizenship. Among college trained people, for example, a belief that “one can make a difference,” or whether or not one’s parents volunteered, are each more relevant than trust to the level of civic engagement. And for people who never attended college and for non-whites, owning a home is more relevant to civic engagement than is their trust level.
Can’t Trust City Hall or the Cops
Distrust of people is dwarfed by distrust of Philadelphia’s major institutions. Only the fire department inspires a lot confidence among most (78%) of area residents. The police are highly trusted by a large majority of suburbanites (58%) but by rather few city residents (33%). Similarly, more suburbanites than city dwellers have a lot of trust in public schools (41% vs. 19%). But both have serious doubts about local, state and federal government, as well as of the news media. Only about one in five area residents have a lot of trust in the daily newspapers and local Philadelphia TV news, and merely one in ten are very trusting in each of the three levels of government.
Distrust Yes, Disengagement No
Distrust of institutions is so pervasive that, in and of itself, it does not bear a particularly sharp relationship to civic engagement. The demographic factors that strongly correlate with interpersonal trust — race and education — also relate to confidence in institutions. Generational differences are also clearly evident. People under 50 years of age are less trusting than the pre-war generations, and of the post war generations, those under 30 are generally more cynical than Baby Boomers 30 to 49 years old. As with interpersonal trust, the survey found that whites are more trusting of many institutions than non-whites, and the well educated more than the less educated.
“My Mother Said So”
The high levels of interpersonal distrust among younger people may in part reflect the fact that this generation was more often instructed by their parents to be wary of others. Fully 43% of those under 30 reported that their parents often cautioned them not to trust to certain kinds of people, compared to 34% of 30-49 year olds and only 27% of those 50 and older. Analysis of the data indicated that parental warnings against trusting strangers was the most important family background factor in how much people trust others. It was more important than a divorce in the family or even than recollections of a family member being victimized by crime.
Another factor associated with the post war generations, TV viewing, does not appear to make much difference in trust. While hours spent in front of a TV set bore a relationship to some measures of trust in other people, the demographic profile of heavy TV viewers accounted for this effect, i.e., that younger, less educated and less affluent are heavy viewers and also less trusting.
Philadelphia city dwellers are less trusting than suburbanites probably because the nature of neighborhoods matters. People who live in “bad” neighborhoods, with poverty, crime, and low home ownership rates, are less trusting of other people regardless of race and education and of whether or not the neighborhood is in the city or the suburbs. But the gap in social trust between blacks and whites is not only a matter of suburb vs. city, the quality of neighborhoods, level of income or other socio-economic factors.
Empowerment Matters Most
Many of the factors that shape public trust are also related to how empowered people feel. Older, better educated people more often feel they are capable of making their community a better place in which to live than do their demographic counterparts. Overall however, most Philadelphians feel they can be efficacious in their communities, neighborhoods and schools. Fully 70% of residents think they can have an impact on making their communities a better place to live.
Six in ten Philadelphians said that, if the need arose, they would be able to contact a local official directly with a problem (rather than needing someone as intermediary), and the same proportion said they could organize their neighborhoods to deal with a neighborhood problem. More than half of parents with school children (53%) said they knew how to get things done at their schools if need be.
Reflecting this sense of empowerment, the frequency with which residents sought community action and their successes was high. Four in ten (40%) have tried at least once to get their local government to address a concern (with suburbanites more active in this respect), and almost one in four have sought such help more than once. Of those who tried, about half reported success in the effort (51%). Similarly, 41% of Philadelphia residents said they helped to organize neighbors to fix or improve a problem in their community. Of them, 85% reported success. Almost half (45%) of parents sought to solve some problem in schools, and of them, 79% said they were successful.
Another Eternal Triangle?
Such reports call into question concern about declining social capital in American communities. However, a relationship between trust and empowerment is clearly present. The Pew Research Center survey found that trustful people more often feel that they can make a difference in their community. For example, 74% of those who said they have a lot of trust in their neighbors also believe they could organize those neighbors to address a common problems. In contrast, only 37% of those with little or no trust in theirs neighbors feel this way. Even when race, education, and age are taken into account, trust has a strong influence on feelings of empowerment.
The study found a three-way relationship between empowerment, trust and civic participation. While trust has little direct relationship to civic engagement, its has an indirect impact on it through feelings of empowerment. In particular, people who both trust others and feel empowered are highly engaged in civic activities.
Trust and empowerment are part of a pattern of attitudes that affect civic participation. But clearly, a sense of efficacy is the attitude more relevant to citizen engagement.
The survey found little indication of an “engagement” problem in Philadelphia. The connection between respondents and their communities and neighborhoods was evident in the fact that more than nine out of ten took part in civic events in the past year, including:
- 56% joined or contributed money to an organization in support of a cause.
- 49% of workers said they joined with others to solve a work place problem.
- 30% attended a civic meeting or public hearing.
- 30% contacted an elected official about a problem.
While better educated and older people participate in civic activities more than younger and less well educated residents, the depth of roots in the community also bears a strong relationship to engagement. Homeowners and people who have lived in the Philadelphia area for a number of years were more likely to have engaged in a variety of civic activities than renters and newcomers. This pattern was true even taking into account socio-economic factors and age.
Volunteering is less common than civic activities, but many Philadelphia area residents report some engagement of this type in the past year. Almost half (49%) spent part of one or more days volunteering in the month preceding the interview. The average volunteer spent at least part of five days in the preceding month in volunteer activity. Three areas of volunteering were most popular: church-related, youth-focused, and efforts to assist the poor and homeless. In the previous month, one in five volunteered at least one day to church activities, slightly fewer gave at least one day to help the poor and needy, and more than one in ten gave at least one day to help young people.
While education and age most influence volunteer and civic engagement, the survey found that an important predictor of whether and how a resident got involved in the community was his or her degree of “rootedness.” Home ownership and having school aged children are factors that also distinguish the engaged from the unengaged Philadelphians.
Creatures of Habit
A family history of volunteering emerged as crucial. People who recalled a family member volunteering were more likely to themselves participate in a variety of community activities than those who did not.
The wide racial disparities in trust levels between whites and blacks are not echoed in volunteering. In fact, African Americans more often than whites reported church related volunteering and working in youth development and poverty programs. Curiously, the poll did not find that older people, who presumably have more time on their hands, volunteer more than younger citizens.
The Gym and The Church
There were few indications in the survey of social isolationism. Most Philadelphians get out and have strong connections with other people. They engage in a variety of informal activities that promote social contacts and are the basis of interpersonal support networks. The gymnasium and the church are the principal centers for the informal social activities. During the month prior to the survey, six in ten said they worked out or attended church. During the previous year, three out of four said they were engaged in each of these activities. Other traditional social activities such as playing cards and other games with a regular group, participating in book reading and study clubs, and participating in organized sports leagues, also attracted considerable proportions of residents. But so have newer activities such as sending and receiving e-mail, as well as taking adult education classes.
On average, the typical Philadelphia area resident engaged in some informal activity of this type 14 times in the month preceding the survey, which is almost every other day. These activities result in interpersonal connections that potentially expand individual support networks. Most respondents said they develop friendships and meet people through these activities who can be relied on to help with personal problem.
Clearly, most Philadelphians have a strong social support network, with only one in ten saying they have hardly anyone to turn to (9%) or no one to turn to (1%). Isolated residents tend to be over 65 years old, non-white, and have low incomes.
Support Networks and Volunteerism
The size of support networks correlates with volunteerism. Those enjoying large networks are roughly twice as likely as those with small or no networks to volunteer in religious groups, organizations to help the poor, civic groups, and youth development programs. A similar though somewhat weaker relationship was found between large support groups and the amount of informal social activity.
The polling found large difference between city residents and suburbanites in where their support network is located. Fully 73% of city dwellers said their principal confidants live either in their neighborhood or elsewhere in the city compared to just 39% of suburbanites. Most suburbanites (60%) said the people they confide in live out of town, out of state or out of the country.
Children often are the vehicles for informal social activity between their parents, resulting in many new friendships. Two out of three parents with children under 18 years of age said their children take part in recreational activities, and a similar proportion of those parents report making new friendships via those activities. Suburbanites, whites and the college educated report children in such activities most often, with participation rising with family income. Interestingly, however, new friendships made through such activities do not necessarily broaden the parents’ support network, as measured by willingness to ask for help with a personal problem.
Overall working mothers in the Philadelphia area participate as much as women who do not have children, although working mothers with young children are less engaged than other mothers.
Time Keeps On Slipping
Time, as expected, is the biggest single barrier to greater activism among Philadelphians. Although volunteering was the least frequent type of engagement, most residents (55%) said they sometimes wish they had more time in this respect. The college educated, those under 50 years old, and women led in expressing such dissatisfaction. Almost twice as many employed residents wished they had more time to volunteer than did unemployed and retired persons (61% vs. 37%).
The Philadelphia Story
Residents of the city of Philadelphia rated their area somewhat lower than the average city dweller, as found in the smaller, parallel Pew survey of 1,000 adults nationwide. Big city dwellers nationwide were more positive about their city overall and about their neighborhoods than were residents of Philadelphia proper.5 However, Philadelphia suburbanites and suburbanites in the country as a whole rated their neighborhoods about the same.
Philadelphia area residents are very much like other Americans in the amount of trust they place in their fellow citizens and their local and national institutions. Similar proportions say most people can be trusted (more than four in ten) and that people mostly try to be helpful (more than half). Philadelphians and Americans who tend to be more trusting are quite similar: whites, older persons, the better educated, and suburbanites.
Americans as a whole, like Philadelphians, put their trust in family first, then fellow churchgoers, employers and co-workers, neighbors, club members and store clerks, in that order. Area residents and citizens nationwide are also very similar in the institutions they trust most, with local fire departments first and the federal government last. Finally, Philadelphians are less fearful that people would try to take advantage if they had the chance, but they also volunteer less in their communities than do other Americans.
In terms of empowerment, Philadelphians and people in other parts of the country are much alike in the proportion believing they can have an impact on their community, with about seven of ten saying they can have a big or moderate impact.
Americans nationwide act on their feelings of empowerment at about the same rate as Philadelphians, but more Philadelphia area residents report success in their efforts to get local government to pay attention to a problem. Considering only city dwellers, fewer in Philadelphia tried to get attention to a problem than nationwide (33% vs. 41%) but they reported success much more often than city dwellers nationwide (50% vs. 35%). Suburbanites near Philadelphia were largely the same as suburbanites nationwide in this regard.
Philadelphians are, however, somewhat less likely than citizens nationwide to spend time in certain kinds of volunteer work. Thirty-eight percent of Americans volunteered for a church or religious group in the past year compared to 27% of Philadelphians. Similarly, Philadelphians were 12% points less likely to have spent time in the past year volunteering for any organization to help the poor, elderly or homeless. At the same time, Philadelphians keep pace with the nation in their volunteer work for political, cultural, and health-related groups and lag only slightly behind in their work for school programs and environmental organizations.
Some Concluding Observations
Our study cannot speak to trends in behavior in the Philadelphia area, but the levels of civic participation, volunteering and community action recorded in this survey call into question concerns about the level of engagement and dwindling social capital. Lending credence to our conclusion, trend analysis of national surveys about civic engagement, published in Public Perspective, observed that a tremendous amount of readily available data refutes the notion that Americans direct engagement in politics and government has fallen steadily and sharply.6
This is not to say that there has not been a decrease in some types of civic participation. For example, voting in presidential elections has obviously declined. But, other forms of participation are strong, if not stronger, than they once were. Overall, there is little evidence in our research and elsewhere of a broad pattern of disengagement.
Similarly, there are no indications of heightened social isolation. The means and nature of social connections may be changing, but people are still meaningful linked to one another in support networks. Adult education classes and self help groups can be as socially cohesive as PTA and bowling leagues.
Social trust, in and of itself, does not bear an important direct relationship to civic engagement or to volunteering. The extent of interpersonal distrust nationwide has been exaggerated in surveys by the context in which these questions have been asked. In more neutral placements, both in our Philadelphia and our nationwide polls, the level of distrust was lower than in the NORC and Kaiser surveys. However, levels of distrust in institutions are much more worrisome and are consistently high in all surveys.
It is important to recognize that while the two types of trust — of people and of institutions — are related, they are quite distinct. Both bear a relationship to feelings of empowerment and affect engagement indirectly. However, an individual’s sense of empowerment is much more directly and crucially related to engagement than is trust. Many distrustful people volunteer, vote and participate in their communities. Many fewer who do not feel empowered do such things.
- Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery. ↩
- “Bowling Alone,” Journal of Democracy, January 1995; American Political Science Association lecture, September 1995; and “Tuning in, Tuning out: The Strange Disappearance of Civic America,” The American Prospect, 1996. ↩
- National surveys by the National Opinion Research Center and by Kaiser/Harvard/The Washington Post have found higher levels of distrust, apparently because the trust question follows questions about crime on some forms of these questionnaires. But aside from the level of distrust, the trend in the NORC surveys reveals a modest increase in distrust over the past 20 years. ↩
- Community involvement (or, as it is often referred to here, civic engagement) encompasses activities including: attending public forums; contacting elected officials; joining or giving money to an organization in support of a cause; participating in union activities; joining with coworkers to solve a workplace problem; and voting in Presidential and local elections. ↩
- In part this difference may reflect the fact that people who say they live in big cities nationwide are actually living in smaller, newer or more affluent cities than Philadelphia. In an effort to account for this difference, the Philadelphia city sample was demographically matched to the national sample. The matched comparison still found Philadelphians rating their city and neighborhood lower than the nationwide sample. ↩
- “The Data Just Don’t Show Erosion of America’s ‘Social Capital’,” Everett C. Ladd, The Public Perspective, June/July 1996, p.1. ↩