Trust in Government Nears Record Low, But Most Federal Agencies Are Viewed Favorably

October 18, 2013

Pew ResearchTrust in Government Nears Record Low, But Most Federal Agencies Are Viewed Favorably

62% Have Positive View of Federal Workers

Public trust in the government, already quite low, has edged even lower in a survey conducted just before the Oct. 16 agreement to end the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling.

Trust in Government Again Near All-Time LowJust 19% say that they trust the government in Washington to do what is right just about always or most of the time, down seven points since January. The current measure matches the level reached in August 2011, following the last battle over the debt ceiling. Explore a Pew Research interactive on Public Trust in Government: 1958-2013.

The share of the public saying they are angry at the federal government, which equaled an all-time high in late September (26%), has ticked up to 30%. Another 55% say they are frustrated with the government. Just 12% say they are basically content with the federal government.

Positive Views of Most Agencies, Federal WorkersDespite highly negative views of the federal government overall, the public has favorable views of many of its agencies and departments, which were closed by the shutdown. Majorities have favorable opinions of 12 of 13 agencies tested – with the IRS the lone exception (44% favorable).

Federal workers, hundreds of thousands of whom were furloughed during the shutdown, also are viewed positively: By about two-to-one (62% to 29%), more have a favorable than unfavorable opinion of federal government workers.

Views of Congress Remain Overwhelmingly NegativeThe latest national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted Oct. 9-13 among 1, 504 adults, finds that just 23% have a favorable opinion of Congress, while 73% have an unfavorable view. Dissatisfaction with Congress also is seen in record anti-incumbent sentiment.

More Blame Members of Congress than the Political SystemIn general, the public continues to blame lawmakers themselves – rather than the political system more generally – for the problems in Congress. Nearly six-in-ten (58%) say “the political system can work fine, it’s the members of Congress that are the problem.” Just 32% say “most members of Congress have good intentions, it’s the political system that is broken.”

Since 2010, more have consistently placed more blame on members of Congress than the political system. Notably, majorities of Democrats (64%), Republicans (57%) and independents (55%) say it is members of Congress, rather than the political system, that are more to blame.

Broad Distrust of Federal Government

Nearly All Tea Party Republicans Distrust the Federal GovernmentWhile distrust in the federal government is widespread, there are differences in these opinions. About three-in-ten Democrats (28%) say they can trust the government just about always or most of the time, compared with 10% of Republicans.

Among Republicans and Republican leaners who agree with the Tea Party, just 3% trust the federal government always or most of the time, 76% say they can trust it only some of the time, while 20% volunteer that they can never trust the government.

Young people remain more positive in views about the government than older people: 29% of those younger than 30 say they trust the government always or most of the time, nearly double the percentage among older age groups (16%).

Though there is little difference between whites, blacks and Hispanics overall, there is some variance among whites. Among whites, more female college graduates (26%) express trust in government than male college graduates (15%). Among those who have not completed college, women and men express similarly low levels of trust (15% and 14%, respectively).

As trust in the federal government has declined since the start of the year, anger has risen. Currently, 30% say they are angry at the government, up 11 points since January. The share saying they are basically content with government has fallen by eight points, while frustration has held about steady.

Anger at the federal government is most pronounced among Tea Party Republicans. Fully 55% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who agree with the Tea Party say they are angry with the federal government – about double the percentage among non-Tea Party Republicans (27%) and Democrats and Democratic leaners (25%).

Views of Federal Agencies

Most Federal Agencies Viewed FavorablyNine of the 13 federal agencies and institutions included in the survey are viewed favorably by 60% or more of the public. The agencies with the strongest ratings include: The Centers for Disease Control or CDC (75% favorable), NASA (73%), the Defense Department (72%), the Veterans Administration (68%) and the Department of Homeland Security (66%).

About six-in-ten (61%) have a favorable view of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which is responsible for implementing the 2010 Affordable Care Act. And 54% have a favorable opinion of the National Security Agency (NSA). Earlier this year, the NSA was embroiled in controversy when leaked classified documents exposed the agency’s phone and internet surveillance programs. In June, public opinion was evenly divided over these programs. As many said they approved (48%) as disapproved (47%) of the NSA collecting phone and internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts.

The IRS is rated less favorably than any of the other agencies and departments tested; 44% have a favorable opinion of the tax agency while 51% view it unfavorably.

Partisan Differences in Views of Federal Agencies, Gov’t WorkersRepublicans have less positive views than Democrats of several of the agencies and departments included in the survey. The biggest difference is in opinions of the IRS: 65% of Democrats have a favorable opinion of the IRS compared with 40% of independents and just 23% of Republicans.

Republicans also are far less likely than Democrats to have favorable opinions of HHS (by 33 points), the EPA (30 points) and the Department of Education (28 points).

And federal government workers are viewed far more favorably among Democrats (79% favorable) and independents (60%) than among Republicans (46%).

Still, large majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents view several agencies favorably, including the Defense Department, NASA, the FDA, the Veteran’s Administration, the CDC and the Department of Homeland Security.

Tea Party Republicans Highly Critical of the IRS

Increasingly Partisan Views of the IRSRepublicans and Democrats once held similar views of the IRS, but opinions of the agency now divide sharply along partisan lines.

Currently, about two-thirds (65%) of Democrats have a favorable view of the Internal Revenue Service, 31% have an unfavorable view. Among Republicans, 74% view the IRS unfavorably, 23% favorably.

In 2010, about half of both Democrats (52%) and Republicans (47%) held positive views of the IRS. In 1997, when overall views of the IRS were more negative, there also were only slight partisan differences in opinions of the agency: 61% of Republicans had an unfavorable opinion, as did 57% of Democrats.

In the current survey, large majorities of both Tea Party Republicans (82%) and non-Tea Party Republicans (65%) have unfavorable opinions of the IRS. About four-in-ten Tea Party Republicans (42%) have a very unfavorable view of the tax agency, compared with 23% of Republicans and leaners who do not agree with the Tea Party.

In May, the IRS faced controversy over reports that the agency targeted some conservative organizations seeking tax-exempt status. At that time, just 12% of Republicans thought that the decision to target conservative groups was made by employees of the IRS, while 69% said the Obama administration was also involved. About half of Democrats (54%) said that IRS employees made the decision to target conservative groups.

About the Survey

The analysis in this report is based on telephone interviews conducted October 9-13, 2013 among a national sample of 1,504 adults, 18 years of age or older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia (752 respondents were interviewed on a landline telephone, and 752 were interviewed on a cell phone, including 407 who had no landline telephone). The survey was conducted by Abt SRBI. A combination of landline and cell phone random digit dial samples were used; both samples were provided by Survey Sampling International. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. Respondents in the landline sample were selected by randomly asking for the youngest adult male or female who is now at home. Interviews in the cell sample were conducted with the person who answered the phone, if that person was an adult 18 years of age or older. For detailed information about our survey methodology, see

The combined landline and cell phone sample are weighted using an iterative technique that matches gender, age, education, race, Hispanic origin and nativity and region to parameters from the 2011 Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and population density to parameters from the Decennial Census. The sample also is weighted to match current patterns of telephone status and relative usage of landline and cell phones (for those with both), based on extrapolations from the 2012 National Health Interview Survey. The weighting procedure also accounts for the fact that respondents with both landline and cell phones have a greater probability of being included in the combined sample and adjusts for household size among respondents with a landline phone. Sampling errors and statistical tests of significance take into account the effect of weighting. The following table shows the unweighted sample sizes and the error attributable to sampling that would be expected at the 95% level of confidence for different groups in the survey:

About the SurveySample sizes and sampling errors for other subgroups are available upon request.

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

Author: AFGE Local 704

Representing over 900 bargaining unit employees working at the U.S. EPA Region 5 Offices in Chicago, Ann Arbor, MI and Westlake, OH.

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