POVERTY IS MORE LIKELY CAUSE OF MISTRUST THAN RACE
Research finds no evidence that levels of trust and co-operation are highest in the most ethnically homogenous neighbourhoods ….
Poverty and gross inequality are six times more likely than ethnic diversity to cause British people to be suspicious of their neighbours, a landmark academic paper has found – repudiating the argument that multicultural societies make people uneasy and less trusting of strangers.
Using government surveys of more than 25,000 individuals in 4,000 neighbourhoods, researchers from the University of Southampton said there was “no evidence” that levels of trust and co-operation were highest in the most “homogenous” neighbourhoods. Instead, people living in deprived areas were the most suspicious of those who don’t look like them – and those that do.
“Basically it is poverty not race that makes people uneasy and not trust each other,” said Patrick Sturgis, of the National Centre for Research Methods at Southampton University. “If it were somehow possible to make every neighbourhood in Britain completely ethnically homogeneous, it would have a barely perceptible impact on the extent to which the British trust people in their neighbourhoods.”
Sturgis said whittling away at economic inequalities that lead to isolation and mistrust was the answer to reviving community spirit in much of Britain. The study also shows that Britain’s crisis in “social capital” – leading to less volunteering, fewer close friends, lower rates of happiness and perceived quality of life – has roots in poverty.
“We need to pump money into these places rather than argue it is multiculturalism which is causing communities to fall apart. There’s no evidence for it.”
Sturgis said his team’s work, to be published in the British Journal of Political Science, was a riposte to that of the Harvard academic Robert Putnam, who in 2007 first argued that diversity reduces trust since people “act like turtles”, hunkering down to avoid those who are somehow different.
Putnam, who was closely associated with New Labour and a frequent visitor to Downing Street, wrote three years ago that “inhabitants of diverse communities tend to withdraw from collective life, to distrust their neighbours regardless of the colour of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, give less to charity … work on community projects less often [and] register to vote less.”
Since then the idea that diversity makes people anti-social has become mainstream wisdom. “We have seen Trevor Phillips [the Equality and Human Rights Commission chairman], David Goodhart [the Prospect magazine founder] and David Blunkett [the former home secretary] all advance this thesis. They have all been quite pessimistic, arguing that immigration is leading to segregated communities and distrustful citizens. But the evidence in Britain is that diversity has an almost negligible effect on how much people trusted each other,” he said.
The flaw was to “translate” a uniquely American experience to Britain. Sturgis said the US studies often used “poor data and inappropriate analysis methods” but also did not factor in “the history of the ethnic composition of neighbourhoods which is hugely coloured by the legacy of slavery … we cannot assume that this translates easily to the UK context.”
The concerns about multiculturalism were taken up by politicians on the right, too – especially those preoccupied with the putative social consequences of waves of immigrants entering the country.
Sturgis said that for the last five years immigration had become associated with undermining “community cohesion, civic engagement and trust”. But he said many had deliberately chosen to conflate poverty and diversity. “In reality, immigrants do find themselves living in poorer areas so we can see how the two issues have been confused.”