Trust in the Time of Coronavirus: Low Trusters are Particularly Skeptical of Local Officials and Their Own Neighbors

A few days ago, I saw the results of a new Pew poll on Americans’ trust in the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak. The poll, based on a random sample of 11,537 U.S. adults, addressed two questions: Which groups of people and societal institutions do Americans trust right now? And how do their background levels of generalized trust influence their trust in those specific groups of people and institutions?

The takeaway is troubling: High trusters and low trusters have comparable amounts of trust in our federal agencies and national institutions, but they have vastly different amounts of trust in the responses and judgments of their local officials and neighbors.

To examine these issues, the Pew resesarchers first divided the sample into three groups based on their responses to three standard questions for measuring generalized trust. Helpfully, they called these three subgroups Low Trusters, Medium Trusters, and High Trusters.

As many other researchers have found, generalized trust was associated with ethnicity (white Americans have higher levels of generalized trust than blacks and hispanics do), age (the more you have of one, the more you have of the other) education (ditto), and income (ditto). These results are hardly surprising–ethnicity, age, education, and income are among the most robust predictors of trust in survey after survey–but they do nevertheless provide an interpretive backdrop for the study’s more important findings.

What really struck me were the associations of people’s levels of generalized trust and their sentiments toward public institutions and groups of other people. Low, medium, and high trusters had fairly similar evaluations of how the CDC, the news media, and even Donald Trump were responding: On average, people at all three levels of generalized trust had favorable evaluations of the CDC; on average, people at all three levels of generalized trust had lukewarm evaluations of Trump’s response.

Where the three groups of trusters differed more conspicuously was in their evaluations of their state officials, their local officials, and–most strikingly–ordinary people in their communities. About 80% of high trusters thought their local and state officials were doing an excellent or good job of responding to the outbreak. Only 57% of low trusters said the same.

But the biggest gulf in the sentiments of high trusters and low trusters was in their evaluations of ordinary people in their communities. Eighty percent of high trusters said that ordinary people in their community were doing an excellent or good job in responding to the outbreak. Only 44% of low trusters approved.

 

High trusters, medium trusters, and low trusters also had widely divergent opinions about the responses of ordinary people–both across the country and in their local communities.

Most people, regardless of how much generalized trust they had, thought their state governments, local governments, and local school systems were responding with the right amount of urgency to the outbreak. However, high trusters and low trusters differed greatly in their attitudes toward the responses of their neighbors. Where as16% of high trusters thought ordinary people in their local communities were overreacting; 35% of the low trusters–more than twice as many–thought ordinary people in their local communities were overreacting.

What I find troubling about these statistics is that all epidemics, like all politics, are local. The people who should be best equipped to tell you about what’s going on in your community are the people who are paid to know what’s going on in your community and the people who actually live in your community. We’re entitled to clear and accurate information from local officials, and we should be ashamed that local people cannot always trust their judgment. But local officials are not the only source of information that people should be able to trust. An ordinary person in your community could, in principle, be able to tell you whether a teacher at your kid’s school or a cashier at your local grocery store tested positive. How much unnecessary risk do we expose ourselves to when some of us inhabit communities or worldviews that cause us to perceive our local officials and neighbors are liars, incompetents, or chicken-littles?

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