Do You Trust Your State Government?

If you're a North Dakotan, then probably so. But if you live in Illinois, then not likely. 
The Illinois Capitol in Springfield is the seat of the state government, but not of much citizen trust. (Wikimedia Commons)

When people around the country are asked whether they trust their state government to handle the state's problems, how do you think they answer? Where would you guess they might be most distrustful and where least?

It turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, that people in Illinois are least trusting. Only 28 percent of residents in the Land of Lincoln trust their state government “a great deal” or “a fair amount.” Government fares better in Rhode Island and Maine, but not by much. In each of those two states, only two out of five residents trust the government.

What about the other end of the spectrum—people who really trust their state government? Where do they live? They’re Westerners, one and all. In North Dakota, Wyoming, Utah, South Dakota, Nebraska, Texas, and Alaska, more than 70 percent of residents trust their state government “a great deal” or “a fair amount.”

These data come from a poll released recently by Gallup. In the second half of 2013, Gallup interviewed a random sample of at least 600 residents in every state about their trust in their state's government. This map groups the states into three broad categories, making it easy to see at a glance where the more trustful populations are: 

What accounts for the differences? Gallup focuses on population as a factor:

In general, trust is lower in more populous states than in less populous states. The 10 most populous states and 10 least populous states differ by 11 percentage points in state government trust, with the middle population states in between. Larger states have larger economies and more citizens needing services, and often more diverse populations, so they may be more challenging to govern than smaller states.

But the analysts aren't so naive as to suggest that it's only the large economy and diverse population of Illinois that explain its outlier status as the state with, by far, the lowest percentage of trusting residents:

Illinois' position at the bottom of the list in residents' trust in state government is not surprising, given that its last two governors, Rod Blagojevich and George Ryan, were sentenced to jail for crimes committed while in office. Two prior Illinois governors from the 1960s and 1970s also went to jail.

Yes, it isn't hard to discern why Illinoisans might cast a suspicious eye on their state government. For expedience, let's call that case closed.

What about Rhode Island and Maine, next lowest on the trust index? Each only gets two-fifths of their residents to report much trust in state government. Is this also a matter of out-of-control corruption? People may think so, especially in the case of Rhode Island. (Think Buddy Cianci or the recent but still unexplained abrupt resignation of the speaker of the state's house.) But as Katharine Seelye noted in Sunday's New York Times, the perception of high levels of political corruption in Rhode Island is belied by studies showing that, at least as measured by convictions of public officials, it is actually among the least corrupt states. 

A more likely factor influencing the trustful feelings of Ocean State residents is a high unemployment rate. As Gallup states: "Healthy economies are generally associated with higher levels of trust in state government." In 2013, Rhode Island still had, on average for the year, the second-highest unemployment rate in the country, at 9.5 percent. Only Nevada's was worse. 

Extremely low levels of job growth in Maine may also be the reason for that state's low ranking on the trust index. The Maine Center for Economic Policy reports that "Maine ranks 49th among the 50 states and District of Columbia in total job growth since January 2011." And some analysts point to actions by Maine Governor Paul LePage and the state legislature as being responsible for the stagnant economy there—and for the resultant low levels of trust. 

Presented by

John Tierney is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a former professor of American government at Boston College. He is the author of Organized Interests and American Democracy (with Kay L. Schlozman) and The U.S. Postal Service: Status and Prospects of a Government Enterprise.

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