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.

What's up with the Westerners at the other end of the trust spectrum? The five states with the highest rates of trust in state government did, in fact, have impressively low rates of unemployment in the last quarter of 2013—North Dakota (2.6 percent), Wyoming (4.5 percent), Utah (4.3 percent), South Dakota (3.6 percent), and Nebraska (3.7 percent). So a healthy economy seems to be an important factor. And people in western, less-populated states generally seem to be more happy with their states, more inclined to think their states are among the best places to live. The effects of these feelings may cross over to attitudes toward state government.

But absent sophisticated quantitative analyses involving much more data, any efforts to parse the differences among states on this subject are likely to hit dead ends. Let's focus instead on the nationwide average of Americans' attitudes about state government.

Until this poll, Gallup has only measured Americans' trust in their state governments on a national basis. (In other words, the questions were asked in nationwide polls, so the data on that question could not be disaggregated and reported for individual states.) The last time Gallup reported on that nationwide result (September 2013), 62 percent of Americans trusted their state government—down three percentage points from the year before. This graph shows what those national-basis figures looked like over the past 40 years:

According to the new Gallup poll, the nationwide average has ticked down another four percentage points to 58 percent. That's still much, much higher than the percentage of people who say they trust the federal government most of the time—now at 19 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. (I should note that Gallup finds trust in the federal government to be higher than Pew does. The difference probably stems from how the questions are worded: Pew's question is more vague and general, Gallup's more specific about trust in the government's handling of policy problems, international and domestic.)

Still, we're left to ask: Why is Americans' trust in their state governments eroding now, in the same way that their trust in the federal government has been declining for most of the last half-century? While one can offer explanations for such attitudes in individual states, it's much harder to figure out what accounts for the nationwide declines depicted in the line graph above.

Why the sudden uptick from 1997 to 1999? Why the precipitous decline from 1999 to 2004? (The decline around 2009 is likely related to the distressed economy.) What accounts for all this relatively sudden fluctuation? Please share your views in the comment section.

Distrust of government is a leitmotif in American history. Wariness and suspicion of governmental authority are certainly not alien to the national experience. But another theme in Americans' collective attitude toward government has been that we are more trustful of governments and politicians who are close to the people, while distrusting far-off elites. That may be changing, as attitudes toward state governments seem now in flux.