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'Distrust is really yet another form of inequality.' When poor moms don't trust anybody

Judith A. Levine
Judith A. Levine

By Barbara Raab, Senior Producer, NBC News

Beginning in the mid-1990s, when Judith A. Levine was a doctoral student in Chicago writing about low-income women’s lives, she interviewed 95 women about their experiences raising children in poverty and trying to make ends meet.  And as she conducted her interviews, she came to see a familiar pattern she hadn’t expected.

Judith A. Levine
Judith A. Levine

“I was struck,” Levine says, “by how many women talked about their suspicions of others’ unreliability … in almost every area of [their] lives.”

Levine sums up that pattern in one word: distrust.

In her new book, Ain't No Trust: How Bosses, Boyfriends and Bureaucrats Fail Low-Income Mothers and Why it Matters, Levine, now an assistant professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, argues that if low-income women felt more trusting of almost everything and everyone in their lives, the welfare-to-work revolution at the heart of President Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform law might have lifted more women out of poverty. Instead, she says, distrust has limited poor women's progress.

"Distrust is really yet another form of inequality," Levine said in an interview with NBC News. "Those who are better off have more reason to trust those around them. And that trust brings benefits."

NBC News: We hear a lot about some of the issues that face women in poverty – lack of jobs, lousy education, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, the hardship of being a single parent. You’ve identified another issue that might not occur to most people, the issue of distrust. Explain why it matters.

Levine: My interviews revealed that distrust is really pervasive amongst low-income women. Many women distrust welfare caseworkers, employers, child-care providers, boyfriends or husbands, and, although this was less common, even family and friends. And this distrust keeps them from doing a lot of the things society wants them to do, like stay in jobs long-term, get married, hire child-care providers so they can go to work.

How does this distrust function in a way that may be different for low-income women than for middle-class women? There are a lot of middle-class women who don’t trust certain people to be with their children.

Middle-class and upper middle-class mothers have a lot of other options. They have more money, they can pay someone more to get someone who’s more reliable, they have well-regulated child-care centers in their neighborhoods, they feel they have the right to appear at these child-care centers and speak up if there’s something they’re not happy about. Low-income mothers feel they have a lot less power over their environment and the people in their environment.

Explain what many low-income women told you they experienced at the welfare office and how that can sow the seeds of distrust.

Being a caseworker is a really hard job. They’re under a lot of pressure to get people off the welfare rolls. Their caseloads are too big, they’re overworked. The women I interviewed described many caseworkers as not taking the time to explain things clearly, not being respectful, and not following through on things they promised to do. So, as a result, low-income women don’t think of caseworkers as reliable and hence don’t think of them as trustworthy. As a result, when caseworkers give them incentives, they don’t believe it. So distrust has this pernicious effect of making policies less powerful or effective than they could be, because incentives have to be trusted to be effective.

You also talk about how boyfriends and romantic partners are part of this vicious cycle.

Some low-income men are trying to do well by the women in their lives. But many women told stories of boyfriends who were violent or, in less extreme cases, were not supportive of women’s attempts to make it in the workforce, boyfriends who would promise to watch children and then would get drunk, or not show up at the last minute, which caused women to lose their jobs. Due to all these experiences, women were very hesitant to want to get married. And so they go it alone, for the most part, and they don’t have two incomes and a household, they don’t have help managing the strain of balancing work and motherhood in low-wage jobs.

So in all these ares you’ve explored, you’ve concluded distrust exists; how do we instill trust in people who may have excellent reasons not to trust?

A lot of people might listen to my evidence and say, okay, we have to teach these women to trust. This is yet another way we have to fix low-income women. I think that is the wrong approach. I think the way to teach women to trust is to make sure everyone around them is trustworthy. If we think it’s important for low-income mothers to follow the policies we want them to follow, we have to do something to make them believe the people who are instituting those policies. Otherwise, at the very least, policies aren’t reaching their full potential.

You argue that before welfare reform, low-income people trusted that there was going to be a safety net for them, and that instilled, at some basic level, trust in “the system.” And because there are now work requirements for cash assistance,  that trust is no longer there. But for other Americans, who are not in the welfare system, that was an important piece to remove, because it was seen as a disincentive to improving their lives.

You’re right, at least there was a social contract saying there is something to catch you should you need it. That maybe gave low-income people a slight feeling of trust. But there was still a lot of distrust in the actual delivery of those benefits. The other part of this that you describe is absolutely true. The society at large distrusts people in poverty. And distrusts low-income mothers. And low-income mothers know this. They know they are a disrespected group. And that feeds their distrust.

What are some of the things that you believe would have to change for low-income women to begin to trust, and thus have more success in what is supposed to be the path out of poverty?

Probably the most concrete example of what we can do to build trust is to invest heavily in the quality of child care in low-income communities. If we put more money into making child care better, then mothers would have more trust in it. That’s something really concrete we can do that would help not only mothers, but children. Mothers really do want to be in the workforce. They just don’t know how to keep their kids safe.

Editor’s note: this interview has been edited and condensed.