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John Petro

Who Do You Trust? How American Dissatisfaction with Government Hurts Cities

Although we rely on the federal government every day for basic services and protection, very few Americans actually trust the government to do the right thing.

We deposit our money into bank accounts and feel secure knowing that these deposits are insured by the federal government. We fly from Chicago to Denver and rely on federal air traffic controllers to get us there safely. And we can thank Congress for passing the federal stimulus bill, which saved the country from diving even deeper into recession.

And yet, only 22 percent of Americans say that they trust the federal government to do the right thing, one of the lowest levels in the past fifty years.

Levels of trust fluctuate almost exactly with levels of satisfaction about the state of the nation, so it is no surprise that the country is feeling especially distrustful right now. But even during the good times, satisfaction levels hardly ever rise above fifty percent.

Derek Thompson at The Atlantic points out that this distrust is structural. Trust in government was around 80 percent in the mid-1960s. We haven’t come close to matching that level of trust since.

Nixon's scandal, the regularity of hyperpartisanship, the rise of cable news, and the annual parade of government frustrations that belie the quixotic campaign promises Americans now expect from outside candidates has permanently eroded faith in the US government.

On top of that is the conservative ideology that seeks to divorce citizens from their government.

In cities, the positive force of government is apparent every day. Fire and police departments keep us safe, as do building and restaurant inspectors. Publicly maintained parks, pools, and libraries increase the quality of life. Perhaps because of the direct link between citizens and local governments, levels of satisfaction in local government is much higher than satisfaction in the federal government.

But even at the local level, the relationship between citizens and government is eroding. Public parks in New York City are increasingly coming under the control of private non-profit groups. Colorado Springs is cutting vital services and then relying on volunteers to pick up the slack (or not). In Dallas, there are plans for a privately-funded rail line. While voters may be pleased that the project is not adding to their tax burden, there is also the real possibility that concerns like equity and economic access will take a backseat to the need to generate profit.

The erosion in public confidence in government will only hurt cities and their residents. Cuts in federal funding for rental assistance, for example, hurts all city residents because we cannot ignore the effects—more homelessness impacts all city residents. Government serves as a mediator between neighbors, between businesses and their customers, and between employers and their employees. Each of these relationships relies on the protections and services that government provides.

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Posted at 4:18 PM, Apr 20, 2010 in Urban Affairs
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