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  • In many cases, women’s habitual distrust is rational: they distrust because they encounter untrustworthy actors. Tweet This
  • Distrust begotten by untrustworthy actors may forestall people's trust in entirely benign actors and institutions. Tweet This

“Stephanie got fired from her job,” my wife Amber told me. “She couldn’t find a babysitter.”

When Amber told me this, I was reading Judith Levine’s book Ain’t No Trust: How Bosses, Boyfriends, and Bureaucrats Fail Low-Income Mothers. The message of her book is that welfare reform isn’t working because trust is broken. The 1996 welfare reform law succeeded in getting people off welfare rolls, she notes. But the low-income women she interviewed still have the same problems of finding and keeping dignified, well-paid work; good childcare; and trustworthy men. These problems still exist, she says, because the pre-reform social context reform still exists: no trust. If you don’t trust that your employer and supervisor will put you on the path of a decent wage and steady hours, you’ll eventually quit. If the father of your unborn baby, unemployed and strung out on heroine, threatens to beat you with a baseball bat, you’ll break up with him. If you don’t trust the child care center, you’ll quit your low-wage job (or get fired) before putting your kids in daycare.

The latter is part of the reason why Stephanie got fired. As Amber wrote a few weeks ago, when Stephanie first got the job at the restaurant, she had trouble finding child care. Amber suggested that she should apply to have her children at the local child care facility. We know other couples with children at that center, Amber told her, and they love it. Plus, you could probably get them in for free. But Stephanie didn’t want to do that. She doesn’t trust daycare, she said.

Amber offered to connect her with other mothers from our parish who offered to help, for times when Stephanie couldn’t find a babysitter. Stephanie was hesitant; she asked if we could watch her kids instead. Stephanie has a relationship with us. She trusts us.

We helped to watch her children for a few weeks. But with Amber due with our second son any day now, we told her we couldn’t watch her children for the time being. About a week later, after a desperate search for free babysitters, Stephanie was fired.

Levine examines women’s level of trust in five settings: the welfare office, the workplace, child care, romantic relationships, and social networks (by which she means family and friends). With the exception of women’s social networks, the message is the same: women don’t believe that their “interaction partner” has their best interests in mind. And in many cases, Levine finds, women’s distrust is rational: they distrust because they encounter untrustworthy actors.

In many cases, women’s distrust is rational: they distrust because they encounter untrustworthy actors.

For instance, Levine tells how Juanita Soto quit her $8.00/hour job (which, at the time of interview, was twice the minimum wage) at a health clinic because of her supervisor’s mistreatment. Juanita says that her supervisor disrespected her, embarrassing her in front of patients. Levine quotes Juanita: “I’m with a patient trying to see them scheduled and she’ll come [speaking loudly], ‘You need to get your timesheet. You know your times has got to get in today.’ You know instead of saying, ‘Excuse me, make sure you get your timesheet in today...’ You know, real bold.”

Juanita also felt that her supervisor was insensitive to the asthma attacks Juanita suffered. Twice, Juanita said, she had an asthma attack at work, and the doctors there examined her and recommended that she go home—but her supervisor told her to lay down for an hour and then get back to work. Finally, some of Juanita’s African-American coworkers confided to Juanita that they believed the supervisor was singling out Juanita (the only Puerto Rican that worked there) because of her ethnicity. Juanita lodged a complaint with Human Resources, and was told that there had been other complaints about that supervisor. But no action had been taken against the supervisor, and Juanita quit because she was convinced she wouldn’t get a fair hearing. She didn’t trust that her employer had her best interests in mind.

Levine notes that although some women’s stories of mistreatment at work “may give us reason to be skeptical about what actually happened”—like the time a cafeteria worker quit because her supervisor berated her for taking an orange from the cafeteria and eating it—“they nevertheless highlight the premium that many women put on being respected.” When resources are scarce, Levine speculates, respect may be especially prized; it’s one of the few things that women own and can control.

It’s a good point, I think. It helps me make sense of what I’ve noticed in the working-class town of Maytown, Ohio, where Amber and I interviewed young adults. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard folks in the working-class valley say about the more affluent folks on the hill, “They just want to flood the whole valley. They don’t care about us.” And when an “outsider” from a neighboring and more affluent town took an important position in Maytown’s town hall, folks in the valley were quick to believe he brought with him a hidden agenda. They don’t believe he shared their interests in the town.

Distrust begotten by untrustworthy actors may forestall trust in entirely benign actors and institutions.

But if you grew up in a town that is the butt of jokes everywhere (as Maytown is), I could see how (as Levine notes) you would become habitually distrustful as a “preemptive means of protecting” yourself. That stance, again, is somewhat rational. It’s based on real experiences. But as Levine notes, it also begets “a complicated dialectic of trust and distrust in which trust placed in the untrustworthy produces distrust, and distrust then forestalls trust.” In other words, distrust begotten by untrustworthy actors may forestall trust in entirely benign actors and institutions. Like, I suspect, the fully accredited early learning and child care center that Stephanie distrusts.

Some might describe this preemptive stance of distrust as a “victim mentality,” the view of someone determined to see him- or herself as a hapless victim of external forces and actors. But it seems a little uncharitable and naïve to call it that. Because the reality is that there are plenty of bad actors out there selling scams. That’s why you don’t answer phone calls from 800 numbers, and why you’re suspicious of salesmen hawking deals that sound too good to be true. You really do have to be careful.

The connection Levine notes between trust and trustworthiness is an important one. When trust is broken, it’s broken for significant reasons. For instance, a person sexually abused as a child (as Stephanie was) could understandably be hesitant about placing their children under the care of people with whom they have no relationship. As Levine says, distrust is rampant in impoverished communities, but “when the trustworthiness of interaction partners is ignored, it is easy to focus solely on those who do not trust and fixing their ‘inability’ to trust as the solution.”

Indeed, the inability to trust isn’t really the problem; it’s a symptom of larger problems.

This is where Levine’s book frustrated me. The larger problem, she argues, has to do with “structures.” “The structure is the first thing to fix,” Levine writes. What are those structures that welfare reform barely touched? “It did not change,” she says, “the incentives for caseworkers, working conditions in low-wage jobs, the supply of high-quality child care, the opportunities for low-income men, or the resources to communities in which the members of women’s social network lives.” Those are the structures that policies must address, she believes, if low-income women are going to have credible reasons to trust.

In a follow-up post, I’ll discuss why I believe her analysis of the root problem is woefully inadequate, as well as suggest some takeaways from her research for how we should think about strengthening marriage in impoverished communities.