Who you gonna trust?

Poll finds Americans more suspicious than ever

? Cynthia Ivie will organize the closet, plan the move, pay the bills and collect all the documents at tax time. You just have to trust her.

Believe it or not, some people do. Ivie makes a living by convincing strangers to let her company, Loose Ends, manage their private affairs for a fee. As the 48-year-old Chicago entrepreneur explains: “I couldn’t have a business if my clients didn’t trust me.”

Ah, trust me.

Baseball star Sammy Sosa said it last week after getting caught with a corked bat, and so did Martha Stewart after her criminal indictment.

The new interim editor of the scandal-plagued New York Times wants your trust — same with the Catholic Church, the federal government and Fortune 500 companies. Just like Cynthia Ivie, they all want you to believe in them.

Trouble is, Americans generally don’t, at least not as much as they once did. Decades of opinion polling show a remarkably consistent slide in the overall level of trust.

The mother of such surveys, at the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center, reveals the depressing truth in a few simple numbers.

Asked whether “most people can be trusted,” 53 percent of Americans agreed in 1964. That dropped to 49 percent in 1971, 44 percent in 1980, 39 percent in 1991 and 35 percent in 2002, the most recent poll in 2002.

“We’re talking a 20 percentage point drop, and the majority of Americans have switched positions from optimistic to pessimistic,” said Tom Smith, director of the General Social Survey at the research center.

Theories for fall abound

Why the sharp turnaround? Theories abound, but none, Smith said, is altogether convincing.

For a while, rising crime rates seemed to be the likely culprit. That helped explain in part, for instance, why blacks in the survey were less trusting, since they also were more likely to be crime victims. But over the past decade, crime has fallen, and people say they are less fearful of it. Yet trust has continued eroding.

Perhaps television is to blame. Harvard University’s Robert D. Putnam has famously postulated that TV disconnects one person from another, discouraging civic and social interactions. Sure enough, the survey reveals that younger generations raised on TV tend to be much less trusting.

But other researchers, Smith included, believe the TV theory puts too much emphasis on a single, tenuous factor.

“I’m not very persuaded,” Smith said.

Rising divorce rates make more sense to him. What would lower the level of trust in youths more dramatically than seeing their parents split? Alas, those raised in divorced families are no less trusting than others of their generation.

“Another good idea shot down by the facts,” Smith complained.

That leaves only more general observations that may or may not contribute to the slide: Living in larger communities makes everyone more anonymous and therefore less trustworthy, some say. Others stress how weaker job security breeds cynicism, or how rising economic inequality means the rich and poor no longer see each other sharing a common fate.

Assessing character

So how do Martha, Sammy and the rest fit in?

Eric Uslaner, author of “The Moral Foundations of Trust,” believes Americans have more than one approach to assessing the character of those around them.

“Martha Stewart won’t shake their foundations,” he said. “It’s the same with political leaders, Catholic priests and the editors of the New York Times. They’re not like you and me. Our view of human nature is not shaped by that.”

Rather, the foibles of public figures tend to reduce faith in the institutions they represent, said Uslaner, a University of Maryland professor.

That viewpoint applies even when the issues are cast in everyday terms. In the case of Stewart, accused last week of hindering an insider-trading investigation, the charges boil down to “lying,” according to James Comey, the U.S. attorney for Manhattan.

Yet even expressed on a personal level, Stewart’s situation affects how Americans view the business elite, not their neighbors, Uslaner maintains.

Corporate confidence down

Indeed, the corporate scandals of the past two years have cut deeply into the trustworthiness of business, the General Social Survey shows. The percentage of Americans with a great deal of confidence in the leaders of major companies sank to 17.2 percent in 2002 from 28.4 percent two years earlier.

Overall, confidence in those running major U.S. institutions has dropped about 5 percentage points since the 1970s — a lesser slide than that of trust in everyday folks, but still significant. And, to a degree, the declines are related, since those with confidence in the nation’s leaders tend to have confidence in their fellow man.