Roanoke College Poll: Trust Among Virginians Suffers Long Decline to Record Lows

The “Virginia Trust Index” rebounded slightly in August 2023 from a series low in May. The August value halted a multi-year decline in trust, coming off series highs early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Between May 2020 and May 2021, the Virginia Trust Index was significantly higher than pre-pandemic values as people rallied together during an uncertain period. Growing frustrations with COVID-19-related mandates created discord in communities, dragging trust down between the middle of 2021 and the present.

 Why is social trust important?

Social trust refers to trust in other members of society. How honest and reliable do members of society believe each other to be? The level of trust in a society strongly predicts economic success and is an important aspect of civic culture. It is positively linked to outcomes such as health, happiness and entrepreneurship, which are associated with economic growth. How? Trust reduces transaction costs, particularly for agreements between strangers, which in turn promotes productivity and economic growth.

 Trust in the United States

One way to measure trust is through survey questions. Since 1972, the NORC at the University of Chicago has included three questions on their national General Social Survey (GSS) pertaining to trust, which are asked every other year, most recently in 2022:

  1. Do you think most people would try to take advantage of you if they got a chance, or would they try and be fair? (FAIR)
  2. Would you say that most of the time people try to be helpful, or that they are mostly just looking out for themselves? (HELPFUL)
  3. Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people? (TRUST)

Because of complications from the pandemic, the questions were not asked in 2020, so there is a data gap between 2018 and 2022.

Trust in the United States has been declining in recent decades. In 1972, 46% reported that they believed most people could be trusted. The sentiment peaked in 1984 at 49% and has averaged 37% between 1972 and 2022. The most recent reading is a series low of 26% after a significant decline since 2018. Studies suggest trust has declined because of increased social issues like isolation, loneliness, greed, dishonesty and crime.

Positive responses to the two other questions pertaining to trust are also on the decline. In 2022, 44% of respondents thought that most people would try and be fair, and 43% reported that they believe people usually try to be helpful. Trust is an important aspect of negotiation, particularly between strangers. Declining trust reduces productivity and hampers economic growth.

Trust in Virginia

In February 2017, the Institute for Policy and Opinion Research (IPOR) at Roanoke College added the same three GSS questions about social trust to a quarterly survey. IPOR continued surveying during the pandemic, so there is no gap in survey collection, offering a glimpse into how fair, helpful and trusting Virginians believe each other to be, including throughout the pandemic.

The most recent reading of the three questions pertaining to trust in the commonwealth was in August 2023. Less than one-third of respondents believe that most people can be trusted while almost two-thirds say that you cannot be too careful; although a small share, more Virginians believe that, generally speaking, most people can be trusted than in the U.S. as a whole, where 26% believe that to be the case.

With respect to most people being fair and helpful, less than a majority believe this to be true. Forty-eight percent believe that most people would try to be fair rather than take advantage of you, a value slightly higher than the national share of 44%. Forty-seven percent report that most of the time, people try and be helpful compared to 50% who believe others are mostly looking out for themselves; 43% believe others to be helpful most of the time at the national level.

Virginia Trust Index

The Virginia Trust Index combines responses from the three questions pertaining to trust in the commonwealth. All values are relative to February 2017, the first time the trust data was collected by IPOR. When the index is equal to 100, less than 100 or greater than 100, trust in Virginia is the same, lower or higher than that baseline, respectively.

Until May 2020, the Trust Index was relatively stable, neither increasing nor decreasing by large amounts. At the onset of the pandemic, the Trust Index jumped almost 20 points to 119.7. It remained elevated for a year before a multi-year decline to a series low in May 2023 (86.4). The index rebounded to 92.0 in August 2023.

The Virginia Trust Index provides a look at trust throughout the pandemic since its national counterpart (GSS) was not collected between 2018 and 2022. Why did trust increase at the start of the pandemic? The significant increase in trust that persisted between May 2020 and May 2021 is likely due to a we-are-in-this-together attitude. Despite frustrations over pandemic-related restrictions such as closures of non-essential businesses and mask mandates, Virginians relied on each other for help, and a greater share found each other to be fair, helpful and trustworthy. The steady decline in trust after May 2021 likely reflects growing frustrations with continued COVID-19-related restrictions such as mask mandates, a divide over newer vaccine mandates and general political discord.


“Trust in the commonwealth was relatively stable for years before the pandemic, neither increasing nor decreasing by a large amount. Suddenly, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, trust jumped by almost 20 points to a series high and remained elevated for a year,” said Dr. Alice Louise Kassens, John S. Shannon Professor of Economics and Senior Analyst at the Roanoke College Institute for Policy and Opinion Research.

“Trust then began a steady decline over the next two years, hitting a series low in May 2023,” said Kassens. “A sudden increase in trust is not uncommon during a crisis as people rally together. What is curious about the pandemic is the subsequent rapid decline from those highs. As the we-are-in-this-together attitude dissipated, frustrations over COVID-19-related mandates, including vaccine mandates, created divides across communities, reducing our trust in one another. Trust is important for a productive economy, so rebuilding some of the lost trust will help the Virginia economy navigate through future business cycles.”


Interviewing for quarterly Roanoke College Polls is conducted by The Institute for Policy and Opinion Research at Roanoke College with a sample of completed interviews ranging between 650 and 700 from random telephone calls to Virginians and a proprietary online panel of Virginians. Telephone interviews were conducted in English. Cell phones constitute 50-55% of the completed phone interviews. Marketing Systems Group provided the telephone dialing frame, and Lucid, LLC facilitated the online panel.

A copy of the questions and all toplines may be found here.

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