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  • Where do people first learn to trust or distrust others? Typically, it's in their families. Tweet This
  • Restoring an ecology of trust in disadvantaged neighborhoods will take more than public policy. Tweet This

For someone who wrote a book with the title Ain’t No Trust, Judith Levine has very little to say about the setting in which people first learn to trust or distrust others: their family of origin. This is a striking omission in a generally insightful book on the struggles of low-income mothers. As I noted in a previous post, Levine details how deep distrust keeps the poor from becoming the productive workers and responsible spouses and parents that proponents of welfare reform hoped they would become.

Levine does devote a chapter to women’s experience of trust in their kin and friendship networks. In a landscape of suspicion, this is the setting where many of her interviewees actually reported some level of trust. As she reports, “Mothers, sisters, brothers, cousins, and sometimes friends acted as partners in raising children, in sharing emotional support, in providing goods, and in keeping each other sane during hardships.” She is careful to note that this is not the case for everyone, but in general, if women told stories of trust, this was the setting.

But the chapter’s title is revealing: “I Trust My Mother and No One Else.” This means that the woman quoted doesn’t trust her father, or any of the surrogate fathers who may have darted in and out of her life. Isn’t that an astounding fact? But Levine doesn’t notice. In fact, she devotes only passing mention to fathers in a chapter that’s supposed to tell us about women’s relationships with their family.

This is a huge omission. I suspect that if she had invited her informants, “tell me about your father,” or “tell me about your stepfather,” she would have heard things like “my dad was a big douche,” or “he’s a dick…. I hate his guts.” (That’s how one young man I interviewed described, respectively, his absent father and his stepdad.) And as another young man, who never knew his father, explained to me, “what really f***** me is the dad situation. Of course that’s gonna make me grow up and feel like I can’t trust nobody…. He turned his back on me.”

Long before a woman directly encounters the structure of the welfare office or the structure of the labor market, she experiences the structure of a family.

But Levine is blind to this drama, perhaps because of her dogmatic insistence that all the problematic structural forces in her subjects’ lives have to do with work and welfare and child care. This insistence is evident even in her chapter on romantic relationships and marriage. “Once again,” she says, “it is easy to see the role that low-income women and men’s position in the macroeconomy and other large structures plays in producing experiences that teach them to distrust each other.” What really matters, she says, are policies—she always talks about policies!—that “improve men’s labor market position.” That’s the “social context” she has in mind when she criticizes policymakers for ignoring the social reality that poor women find themselves in. “If we really want to understand low-income mothers’ welfare, employment, and family choices,” she says, “we need to look beyond the mothers themselves to the social contexts in which mothers find themselves.”

Precisely. And that’s why listening to women’s experiences in their family of origin and of their relationships with fathers would be so enlightening. Long before a woman directly encounters the structure of the welfare office or the structure of the labor market, she experiences the structure of a family—with all the vulnerability of a child, no less. Surely this is an important fact for understanding the sources of women’s distrust.

My hope is that future research on distrust in impoverished neighborhoods will build on Judith Wallerstein’s longitudinal research with children of divorce. Wallerstein began her research in the 1970s, skeptical that divorce would have a lasting effect on children’s lives. But twenty years later, after she interviewed some now-adult children of divorced parents again, she was astounded by the crisis of trust she encountered, even among those who achieved professional success. “Divorce in childhood creates an enduring identity,” she found. “Because it typically occurs when a child is young and impressionable and the effects last throughout her growing up years, divorce leaves a permanent stamp. That identity is made up of the childhood fears that you can’t shake despite all the successes and achievements you’ve made as an adult.” And if that’s true for Wallerstein’s sample of children from mostly well-educated families, what does it suggest about the effects of family fragmentation in impoverished communities?

Still, Levine’s book is an important contribution to helping us understand the gritty reality of life in poor neighborhoods, and I would add, in working-class neighborhoods as well. The weakening of marriage has contributed to the trust crisis, but it’s not the only factor.  And while strengthening the marriage idea (not simply marriage rates) is an important part of renewing a climate of trust, we need a broader focus.

Because here is the thing: even if it’s true that family fragmentation is a really big deal for children, the casual sex, and drugs, and gangs that angry, anxious adolescents are turning to are completely devastating the ecology of trust that successful marriages depend on. That heroin-addicted and unemployed boyfriend who threatened his girlfriend with a baseball bat—he’s got some serious issues. He’s in no position to get married. (I would add that he needs a lot more than better public policies; neighborliness and in-the-flesh solidarity are indispensable in helping people like him.)

If marriage is becoming an endangered species in poor and working-class neighborhoods, we’ve got to think about more than just saving the species from extinction. How do we replenish and sustain the marriage-friendly ecology? That’s the question, I think. Confronting that question will require an inquiry uncomfortable to the partisan and politically correct mind: it requires a willingness to confront everything from the role of early and casual sex in destroying trust, to the role of employers whose business models depend on low-wages and part-time hours.

That won’t be an easy conversation, but we’ve got to have it.