Globally, only 40% agreed with the statement "my family and I will be better off in five years" compared to 50% a year before, with advanced economies most downbeat: the United States (36%), Britain (23%), Germany (15%) and Japan (9%).
The study further confirmed how societies have been divided by the impacts of the pandemic and inflation. Higher-income households still broadly trust institutions such as government, business, media and NGOs. But alienation is rife among low-income groups.
"This has really shown the mass class divide again," said Richard Edelman, whose Edelman communications group published the survey of over 32,000 respondents in 28 countries interviewed from Nov. 1 to Nov. 28 of last year.
"We saw it in the pandemic because of differential outcomes in terms of health, now we see it in terms of the impact of inflation," he added. The World Health Organization and others have noted the higher toll of the pandemic on the poor, while those on low incomes suffer most from costlier basic items.
Fast-growing economies saw much higher scores - albeit lower than last year - with only China bucking the trend with a one percentage point rise to 65% despite the economic disruption caused by its now-relaxed "zero COVID" policies.
While Edelman's longstanding Trust Index registered an average 63% trust level in key institutions among high-income U.S. respondents, that figure fell to just 40% among low-income groups. Similar income-based divergences were present in Saudi Arabia, China, Japan and the United Arab Emirates.
In some, that hinted at outright polarization, with high levels of respondents agreeing with the statement "I see deep divisions, and I don’t think we’ll ever get past them" in countries as different as Argentina, the United States, South Africa, Spain, Sweden and Colombia.
While such attitudes inevitably reflect current events, the ebbing of trust in government in particular has been a key theme of the survey for several years, with its trust levels this year sharply lower than relatively healthy ones scored by business.
Edelman attributed that to positive perceptions of company furlough schemes during the pandemic, applause for company moves to exit Russia over the Ukraine war, and a sense that firms have started to up their games on diversity and inclusion.
He said respondents by a six-to-one margin wanted business to engage more on issues from reskilling to climate change and suggested this should encourage them to brush off accusations such as the "woke capitalism" charge voiced by U.S. Republicans.
"I think our data give a lot of ammunition to the CEOs who have recognized that business has to be an important force in societal issues," he said.