The Income Gap: Low Income and Trust

The Income Gap: Low Income and Trust

A Trilogy on Trust

This briefing exists to provide a snapshot of the academic literature in the arena of income and trust. It sits alongside a fresh analysis of a field study commissioned by the John Smith Centre of 1,400 UK adults’ attitudes towards politicians and our public services.

People on lower incomes tend to report lower levels of trust in politicians, and in government, than those on higher incomes. This is borne out in the UK (OECD 2019), the US (Rainie and Perrin 2019) and across Europe (Foster and Friedan 2017). The relationship between trust and socio-economic status has long been the subject of study and scrutiny by researchers across fields including government and political behaviour (see, for example, Marien and Hooghe 2011; Schoon and Cheng 2011; Norris and Inglehart 2019). This work has explored how access to education, income and/or the labour market affects political behaviour, participation, and political trust. It has also navigated how best to make sense of how socio-economic circumstances affect attitudes and behaviours. In political behaviour, literature, socio-economic background and educational attainment have been identified as key drivers of political participation and vote choice at various elections (see for examples Smith 2019; Jennings, Stoker and Twyman 2016).

Research looking at trust in government across Europe has found that citizens’ position in the labour market – or their individual income – is a determinant of political trust. Citizens with higher levels of educational attainment, who are higher skilled workers, are found to be more trusting in government (Foster and Friedan 2017). We can expect that these dynamics can be captured by personal income, the variable explored in this briefing, which acts as a proxy.

We have undertaken new analysis for this briefing of a 2019 survey commissioned by the John Smith Centre, of 1,424 people living in Scotland, Wales and England. We found statistically significant relationships between income and trust in politicians and in government within respondents surveyed. As income rises, so does trust in politicians, and trust in government. The findings from the survey found:

  • Respondents with personal incomes of £60,000 or more were three times more likely to report high levels of trust in politicians than those with personal incomes of £10-20,000.
  • Fewer than 1 in 5 respondents with personal incomes of £10,000-£19,000 reported high levels of trust in government, as compared with almost 1 in 3 respondents with personal incomes of £50,000 or more.
  • Those with a personal income between £50,000-£59,999 were twice as likely to think democracy is working well in the UK as compared to those whose personal working well in the UK than those on low- to middle- incomes.
  • Fifty per cent of respondents with a personal income of £60,000 or more agreed that politicians keep the promises they make during election campaigns, compared to just 1 in 5 respondents with a personal income of £10,000-£19,999.
  • Respondents with personal incomes of £30,000 or more were more likely to report high levels of trust in the BBC, print media and high street banks than those with incomes under £30,000.

While we see the most marked differences in attitudes among those with particularly high incomes, these high-income groups represent a small minority. In seeking to better understand the drivers of trust in politicians and political institutions, more research is needed to identify what contributes to lower trust levels among those on lower incomes, and those on high incomes.

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