Posted April 3, 2013

For women living in poverty, getting ahead is a matter of trust

Elizabeth J. Clifford
Assistant Professor of Sociology Judith Levine conducted in-depth interviews with 95 low-income women that revealed that distrust is a major barrier to opportunity and advancement.

It's not difficult to name some of the issues surrounding poverty in the U.S. Unemployment, lack of educational opportunity, substance abuse and addiction are just some of the factors that quickly come to mind.

However, one you might overlook, but that nevertheless plays a significant role in the lives of those in poverty in this country, is trust  — and distrust.

That's what Judith Levine, assistant professor of sociology at Temple, uncovered during a series of in-depth interviews she conducted with 95 low-income women. Levine spoke at length with the women on the topics of raising children in poverty and trying to make ends meet.

Almost every woman interviewed brought up the issue of distrust. It emerged in conversations about their interactions with caseworkers and bosses; about whether they signed up for child care, got married or allowed their children's fathers into their lives; and about their decisions to rely or not to rely on family and friends for help.

In her forthcoming book, Ain't No Trust: How Bosses, Boyfriends and Bureaucrats Fail Low-Income Mothers and Why it Matters (University of California Press), Levine argues that we cannot understand life in poverty without attention to the production and consequences of distrust.

When she began the interviews during graduate school in Chicago in the mid '90s — shortly before welfare reform — Levine had not set out to examine the role of trust. Once the interviews were complete, however, she found that the role trust played in the women's lives could not be ignored.

Then, in the mid-2000s, Levine set out to conduct a new set of interviews, after welfare reform. She wanted to see how women at the same point in their lives, those with minor children and currently or recently using welfare, were managing following reform and whether or not trust still was a factor.

As a result of the enormous changes made to welfare intended to promote employment, marriage and exit from welfare, Levine expected to see substantial differences in the lives of the women she interviewed.

But she didn't. The women Levine talked with in the mid-2000s had the same problems and described the same strains of distrust as the women she had spoken to a decade earlier.

"Distrust kept them from believing in the work incentives built into welfare, it led them to quit jobs at the first sign a boss might not treat them fairly, it encouraged them to yank their children out of child care arrangements they questioned, it made them hesitant to marry and it kept them from accepting and exchanging goods and support from social networks," she said.

What became clear to Levine as she worked on her book was how much trust matters and how tricky it can be.

"Trust allows people to access the opportunities provided by taking risks, but only when those partners or institutions on the receiving end are trustworthy," she said. “When this is not the case, distrust protects one from harm.”

The women Levine interviewed believed that they lived in a world where trust didn't pay off. "It certainly seemed from their stories that many of their experiences supported that belief, but at the same time some stories also suggested the possibility that some opportunities were being lost," she said. “Still, focusing on enhancing the trustworthiness of those with whom the women interact is the surest way to build trust.”

According to Levine, welfare reform's effects would have been greater if distrust had not limited women's responses to the incentives that reform created. "Policies that do not attend to the structures that produce distrust may be able to achieve some effects, but these effects will be limited in scope," she said.

One example of a policy change that would make a big difference, Levine said, could be made to incentives for caseworkers. "Currently all the incentives facing caseworkers are about getting people off of welfare. Caseworkers, who are put under enormous pressure by welfare reform’s demands,  are not rewarded for delivering a good service and they are not held accountable for making mistakes," she said.

“Low income families are in great need of the opportunities that trusting might bring, yet they find themselves in circumstances that do not promote trust,” said Levine. "Distrust can be a powerful force in guiding key life decisions, and it has been overlooked for too long."