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What are the implications of economic inequality for trust in government and state institutions? Political trust performs important functions in representative political systems, facilitating the efficient functioning of government, simplifying complex political processes, and reducing monitoring costs for ordinary people. The existing literature has shown that macroeconomic performance (including levels of inequality) and evaluations shape political trust. This paper addresses two gaps in the literature by focusing on the role of individual perceptions and subjective experiences of inequality and by studying cases in Africa. Using Afrobarometer survey data collected from more than 40,000 respondents in 34 African countries between late 2016 and mid-2018, I use multi-level modelling to demonstrate that perceptions of relative deprivation are significantly associated with less trust in representative government institutions and, more weakly, with less trust in state institutions. The effect of perceptions of relative deprivation remains significant when controlling for macroeconomic conditions and performance evaluations. In effect size, trust in representative government institutions is at least comparable to frequently cited covariates of trust such as location, level of education, and government economic performance, suggesting that perceived relative deprivation is indeed an important covariate of such trust. Feeling relatively advantaged is also significantly associated with greater trust in representative government institutions. This may reflect strong neo-patrimonial ties between citizens and political agents. In demonstrating that individual-level economic considerations affect political trust in Africa, we challenge the conventional wisdom that only macroeconomic factors affect trust.

Thomas Isbell

Thomas is the Capacity Building Manager (advanced analysis track) and a Post-doctoral research fellow at Afrobarometer