How Ethnic Backgrounds Influence Trust in America’s Government

Cathy Bueker

Trust in American government has dropped dramatically over the past 60 years. In the early 1960s, more than 75% of Americans judged their government to do what was right all or nearly all of the time. Today, that figure stands at less than 20%. 

But, not all Americans trust or distrust equally.

Using 25 waves of the General Social Survey, a nationally representative data set collected by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, I find that immigrants and their children hold higher levels of trust in all three branches of government than do those whose families have lived in the United States for many generations.

These higher trust levels are likely the result of a “dual reference frame,” in which immigrants compare their experiences in the United States with their experiences in their countries of origin, assessing their new government to be more trustworthy than what they had previously known. These direct experiences and memories may be passed down to the next generation of their native-born American children to create a form of historic memory. By the third generation and beyond, there is general convergence or assimilation in confidence levels. 

Although the overall trends suggest higher levels of trust among first and second-generation Americans, there is variation by ethno-racial group and by branch of government. Asian and Latino Americans tend to maintain higher levels of confidence in the Legislative and Executive branches over generations than do their Black and Anglo counterparts, who look very similar to each other across generations.

“Immigrants and their children hold higher levels of trust in all three branches of government than do those whose families have lived in the United States for many generations.”

Cathy Bueker, Associate Professor of Sociology

The one very notable exception is the dramatic decline in confidence towards the Judicial branch exhibited by second and third generation black Americans. While first generation black immigrants show no difference in trust levels, vis-à-vis their Anglo immigrant counterparts, by the second generation, Black Americans are only half as likely as Anglo Americans to report some or a great deal of trust in the Judiciary.

These initial findings raise important questions about why some ethno-racial groups begin with and maintain significantly higher confidence levels in government than do other ethno-racial groups, why there is variation by branch of government, and whether assimilating to native-born Anglo-American levels of distrust is a good or bad outcome for American society, more generally. 

This research was presented in March 2019 at Harvard’s Migration and Immigrant Incorporation Workshop and will be presented at the national conference of the American Sociological Association in New York in August 2019. Emmanuel research assistants: Jillian Veader ’22 and Cristina Palmieri ’20

Cathy Bueker
Cathy Bueker

Catherine Simpson Bueker is an Associate Professor of Sociology. She earned her BA in American Studies from Cornell University and her MA and PhD in Sociology from Brown University. Between college and graduate school, she worked in politics. She has published two books, as well as articles and book chapters on issues of immigration, race and ethnicity, and political engagement. She has twice been visiting faculty at Harvard University. She lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts with her husband and their three children.