NEW YORK — Karen Glidden’s loneliness became unbearable during the coronavirus pandemic.
The 72-year-old widow, who suffers from vision loss and diabetes and lives far from any relatives, barely left her house in Champion, Michigan, this past year, for fear of contracting the virus. Finally vaccinated, she was looking forward to venturing out when her beloved service dog died last month.
It doesn’t help that her circle of trusted friends has dwindled to one neighbor she counts on to help her shop, get to the doctor and hang out.
“I feel like I’m in a prison most of the time and once in a while, I get to go out,” said Glidden, whose adult children live in California and Hawaii, where she was born and raised.
She is not alone in her sense of social isolation.
Millions of Americans are struggling through life with few people they can trust for personal and professional help, a disconnect that raises a key barrier to recovery from the social, emotional and economic fallout of the pandemic, according to a new a poll from The Impact Genome Project and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
The poll finds 18% of U.S. adults, or about 46 million people, say they have just one person or nobody they can trust for help in their personal lives, such as emergency child care needs, a ride to the airport or support when they fall sick. And 28% say they have just one person or nobody they can trust to help draft a resume, connect to an employer or navigate workplace challenges.
The isolation is more acute among Black and Hispanic Americans. Thirty-eight percent of Black adults and 35% of Hispanic adults said they had only one or no trusted person to help navigate their work lives, compared with 26% of white adults. In their personal lives, 30% of Hispanic adults and 25% of Black adults said they have one or no trusted people, while 14% of white adults said the same.
Researchers have long debated the idea that the U.S. has suffered from a decline in social capital, or the value derived from personal relationships and civic engagement.
The General Social Survey, a national representative survey conducted by NORC since 1972, suggests that the number of people Americans feel they can trust had declined by the early 2000s, compared with two decades earlier, although there is little consensus about the extent of this isolation or its causes. The rise of social media has added another layer of debate, as experts explore whether it broadens networks or lures people in isolating echo chambers.
The Impact Genome/AP-NORC poll sought to measure how much social capital Americans can count as they try to pick up the pieces of lives fractured by the pandemic. The findings suggest that for many Americans, the pandemic has chipped away at whatever social capital they had going into it.
Americans were more likely to report a decline than an increase in the number of people they could trust over the past year. Just 6% of Americans said their network of trusted people grew, compared with 16% who reported that it shrank. While the majority of Americans said the number of people they could trust stayed the same, nearly 3 in 10 said they asked for less support from family and friends because of COVID-19.
But the nature of the pandemic made those bonds difficult or even impossible to maintain. Schools, community centers, churches, synagogues and mosques closed. People couldn’t ask neighbors or grandparents for help with child care or other needs for fear of spreading the virus.
About half of Americans are engaged in civic groups such as religious institutions, schools or community service groups, according to the new poll. And 42% of all adults said they have become less involved with civic groups during the pandemic, compared with just 21% who said they became more engaged.
“Compared to the way social capital can be leveraged in other disasters, the key difference has been that this is a disaster where your civic duty was to be on your own,” Benz said.
Surveys from the Pew Research Center suggested that relocation increased during the pandemic. While some people moved to be closer to family, more relocated because of job loss or other financial stresses.
Warlin Rosso, 29, has moved often in pursuit of financial stability, often at the cost of his social ties.
He left behind his entire family, including 14 siblings, when he immigrated to the U.S. five years ago from the Dominican Republic. He worked at a warehouse in Chicago for three years, sharing an apartment with a girlfriend. But when that relationship fell apart, he couldn’t afford to move out on his own. In December 2019, he relocated to Jackson, Mississippi, where a childhood friend let him move in.
That friend, Rosso said, remains the only person in Jackson he can trust for help. As the pandemic closed in, Rosso struggled in a city where the Hispanic community is tiny.
Through social media, he found work with a Nicaraguan man who owned a construction business. Later, he found a training program that landed him a job as hospital aide.
His co-workers are friendly, but he feels isolated. Sometimes, he said, patients bluntly ask to be helped by a non-Latino worker. He hopes eventually to get a similar job back in Chicago, where he has friends.
“It’s not always welcoming for Hispanics here,” Rosso said. “Here, I’m alone.”
The AP-NORC poll of 2,314 adults was conducted March 25-April 15 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.