Theodore Roosevelt, whose full and multifaceted life included exemplary public service as a military leader, governor of New York, conservationist, and president of the United States, understood that history is the best guide to a brighter tomorrow. “The more you know about the past,” he said, “the better prepared you are for the future.”
This issue of Trust begins with our annual look at last year’s accomplishments. In 2019, Pew continued to work—often with equally ambitious and data-driven partners—on initiatives ranging from expanding public lands to supporting arts and heritage in Philadelphia. And many of our accomplishments would not have been possible without understanding the history that created an opportunity to address an important new challenge.
For example, today’s most common retirement plan is the 401(k), which Congress created in 1978 to permit employees to save money on a pre-tax basis while employers match some of those savings. The plans increased in popularity in 1981 when the Internal Revenue Service allowed payroll deductions. And in 2006, after research supported by Pew showed the effectiveness of automatic participation, federal law began to allow employers to automatically enroll workers in retirement plans, further increasing their use. Yet our most recent analysis determined that only 53 percent of small and medium-sized businesses offered their employees a retirement plan—and 37 percent of those businesses cited cost as the reason. This careful study of past trends in private sector pensions gave rise to a new U.S. Labor Department rule in July, citing our research, that allows small companies to band together and provide future retirement security for their workers.
In August 2017, Hurricane Harvey inundated Houston and its suburbs. The storm was the latest in a sad history in Texas that saw Galveston devastated in 1900 and more recent hurricanes such as Rita in 2005 and Ike in 2008, causing hundreds of billions of dollars in damage. But in June, the Lone Star State became a national leader in planning for future floods and mitigating damage—in part because of that history, and in part because of research by Pew that helped inform Texas’ first flood plan, including $800 million for mitigation. That’s almost three times what the federal government budgeted for the entire nation.
The Pew Research Center, of course, has spent decades surveying and analyzing social, political, religious, and demographic trends in the United States and around the world. This evidence-based research now includes more than 50 new reports developed over the past two years that builds on much of this work and forms the center’s Trust, Facts, and Democracy initiative. As the nation prepares for the 2020 elections, Michael Dimock, the center’s president, has written an overview of how the public views the accuracy of news, the role of social media, the tone and nature of political debate, and the ways in which people gauge trust in their fellow Americans’ political decision-making and in Washington institutions. For example, in 1958, three-quarters of Americans trusted the federal government in Washington to do the right thing. That number has now fallen to 17 percent. The center’s fact-based work is intended, as Mike writes, to help policymakers “channel the power of rigorous and objective information to inform decisions and strengthen democratic life.”
Chilean Patagonia’s ecological diversity and natural beauty is matched only by the region’s rich history. The area has been inhabited by indigenous people for more than 10,000 years and probably earned its name from the word patagones, or giant men, which is how Ferdinand Magellan’s crew described the native Tehuelche people when the Portuguese explorer arrived there in 1520. Today, indigenous residents of Patagonia are instrumental in bringing their knowledge of the region’s history to bear on current conservation concerns. In this issue, you’ll meet one of them, Blanca Esther Cardenas. Along with others in her small community, she collects red seaweed, which can be used in food, medicine, and cosmetics. When outside interests started to take the seaweed for their own benefit, Cardenas helped create a marine management area to protect the seaweed and the sea—so, as she says in the story, “we don’t exhaust those resources in the future.”
At Pew, we never want to exhaust our enthusiasm for learning and our commitment to public service. Together with our partners, who help us understand challenges like these and see the opportunities they present, we eagerly begin a new year and a new decade. It is a perfect time to honor our past, understand the challenges of our present, and stay optimistic about an ever-brighter future.
Rebecca W. Rimel, President and CEO