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Public Trust in Government Starts at the Bottom, and Coronavirus Response Efforts Show Us Why
04.06.2020

Since the first U.S. case of COVID-19 was detected in January, the Trump administration has lingered in their efforts to snuff out the pandemic. Due to the Trump administration’s delayed response — the slow rollout of test kits, claims that the virus was a Democratic election hoax, and the president’s downplayed assumption that the virus would “disappear” — it’s no surprise that Americans are beginning to view the U.S. handling of the outbreak unevenly, especially as case numbers now outpace those in denser, earlier-detected nations and the death toll rises.

While the pandemic has exposed the fragility and flaws of our nation’s healthcare system and  federal leadership, state and local government officials have become the first line of defense in America’s time of need. Governors and mayors have used their authority not only to close schools and limit large gatherings, but also to use emergency powers to enforce curfews and increase resources.

In California, San Francisco Mayor London Breed imposed a stay-at-home order in effort to deter further contagion. California Gov. Gavin Newsom shortly echoed the order, making California the first state to order all residents to stay home. In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo was the first to establish a “containment area” to slow the spread, and activated the National Guard to deliver meals to residents under lockdown. Across the aisle, Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan issued a stay-at-home order where Marylanders may only leave their homes for “absolute necessary” reasons, and in Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine extended the current order from April 6 to May 1. The intensity and duration of response efforts have varied across states, regions, localities, and partisans, but each countermeasure to deter further contagion has served as a reminder for Americans that some of the most important actions in this fight will take place at the state local levels. 

A Lack of Faith in Federal Government

Across various demographics, trust in local government surpasses trust in state or federal government. A look at PRRI data from 2017 found that prior to the coronavirus crisis, trust in the U.S. government had been stagnant or declining for several decades, and clear majorities of Americans did not trust the federal government to do what is right. In the survey, less than three in ten (29%) Americans say they trust the federal government to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time.” A majority (56%) say it can be trusted “only some of the time,” and 15% say it can be trusted “none of the time.” 

More findings show that Americans exhibit only slightly more confidence in their state governments. Roughly one-third (34%) say they trust their state government most of the time or nearly always. About half (51%) say they trust their state government some of the time, while 14% say they never trust it. More than four in ten (43%) Americans say they trust their local government most of the time or nearly always. Roughly as many (45%) say their local government can be trusted some of the time, and 10% say they never trust it.

Trust in government does vary markedly across racial lines — especially for lower levels of government. Black and white Americans are roughly equally distrusting of the federal government: Only 26% of whites and 24% of blacks say they trust the federal government always or most of the time. More than one-third (37%) of Hispanics report trusting the federal government at least most of the time. In contrast, Hispanic and white Americans are more likely than black Americans to express trust in their state government (37% vs. 35% vs. 24%, respectively). Similarly, while more than four in ten (42%) Hispanics and close to half of white Americans (46%) trust their local government at least most of the time, only 27% of black Americans feel similarly.

Governments and health experts across the globe have reported that aggressive social distancing guidance and public health measures work, and have slowed or stunted the spread of the virus — but they must be put in place to do so. As of mid-March, PRRI data shows that more than three in four Americans say they are likely to avoid activities that involve crowds or groups of people as a result of the coronavirus, including taking a cruise (81%), attending a concert or sporting event (80%), going to the movies (79%), getting on an airplane (79%), taking a train, including subways and other public transportation (78%), and going to a gym or health club (78%). Nearly three in four (74%) say they are likely to avoid going to a restaurant or bar, and nearly two-thirds (65%) say they are likely to avoid riding in a taxi, Uber, or Lyft due to the coronavirus threat. Almost half (48%) of Americans are avoiding all eight activities asked about that would involve crowds. On March 30, Trump announced federal guidance urging social distancing measures will stay in place through April 30, backing down from his initial hope that the U.S. economy will be “opened up” by Easter.