Politics

In U.S., Trust in State Government Sinks to New Low

by Jeffrey M. Jones

Trust in local government relatively stable

PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans' trust in state government is down sharply this year, after showing remarkable stability over the prior four readings.

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Gallup's annual Governance Poll, conducted Aug. 31-Sept. 2, finds 51% of Americans saying they have "a great deal" or "a fair amount" of trust in their state government to handle state problems, down from 67% from 2004 to 2008. The prior low occurred in 2003, when trust was 53%, due to an economic downturn but also possibly affected by the news about efforts to recall then-California Gov. Gray Davis.

"The recession's effects may have also helped to spark a dramatic downturn in trust in state government, as governors and legislators across the country try to make up for lost revenue from declining tax receipts, at a time when demand for social programs is increasing."

The declining trust this year likely reflects the challenges many state governments have had in trying to pass state budgets while revenues are declining due to the economic recession. Forty-eight states faced budget shortfalls for fiscal year 2010, and the states were forced to raise taxes or make unpopular budget cuts to close the gaps. The most dramatic example is in California, which came close to bankruptcy this year as legislators struggled to find a way to fund its budget, before finally agreeing on a new budget in late July after several months of contentious negotiations.

California's home region of the West shows exceedingly low levels of trust in state government, at 38% (and 22% among the 98 California residents in the poll). Gallup found similarly low levels of trust in California as well as the nation as a whole in 2003, just before voters in the state successfully recalled Davis.

But the low levels of trust in the Golden State account for only a small part of the 2009 decline, as trust in state government is 54% among non-California residents.

In fact, trust in state government is down significantly from last year in all regions of the country, and is now above the majority level only in the South. The sharpest drop -- 27 percentage points -- has occurred in the West, but there have been double-digit decreases in all four regions of the country.

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Americans' diminished trust in government does not apply to all levels of government, however. Gallup finds only a slight and not statistically meaningful drop since last year in public trust in local governments, from 72% to 69%.

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As reported earlier, Americans' trust in the executive and judicial branches of the federal government has increased, while their trust in the legislative branch and elected officials in general has fallen.

Bottom Line

The economic recession of 2008-2009 has had a negative financial impact on many industries in the United States, especially banking, housing, and the automobile industry. As a result, public perceptions of those industries' images have suffered this year. But the recession's effects may have also helped to spark a dramatic downturn in trust in state government, as governors and legislators across the country try to make up for lost revenue from declining tax receipts, at a time when demand for social programs is increasing. With the economy continuing to struggle, the coming year may not be much kinder to state government leaders, as the vast majority of states expect to see continued budget shortfalls.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,026 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Aug. 31-Sept. 2, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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