The Trust Gap and Hard Times

by Judith A. Levine

“Right now today you really can’t trust no one,” Mia Fields declared as we sat in her kitchen talking about how she is raising her four girls. Mia came by her philosophy the hard way. As a low-income mother struggling to make ends meet in the post-welfare reform world, she has had her share of hardships. She has struggled through a difficult relationship with a man swallowed up by the drug trade and later by substance abuse. She has seen caseworkers promise one thing and deliver another. She has held jobs which, despite the encouragement of welfare workers and bosses, lead nowhere. Like many of the low-income mothers I interviewed for my book, Ain’t No Trust: How Bosses, Boyfriends and Bureaucrats Fail Low-Income Mothers and Why It Matters, Mia Fields has learned one lesson over and over: you really can’t trust no one.

Trust is valuable. Unlike Mia, the middle- and upper-classes in America have often reaped benefits from placing their trust in others. Systems have generally worked well for them; why shouldn’t they trust others and attain the rewards of cooperation? But then the mortgage crisis hit and the Great Recession followed. In these Hard Times, the middle-class who once thought their interests were aligned with the banking industry that served them and the work organizations that offered them security are learning they can no longer safely trust these institutions. In other words, they are getting a glimpse of how those in poverty have seen life all along.

And yet, just a glimpse. It is always Hard Times for those in poverty. As a result, their distrust can be pervasive. In Ain’t No Trust, I show how palpable and far-reaching distrust is among the 95 low-income mothers I interviewed both before and after welfare reform’s dismantling of the welfare state. Their distrust is rooted in structural conditions such as welfare offices that reward caseworkers solely for getting cases off the rolls and workplaces in which low-wage workers are considered dispensable. Low-income mothers distrust because they neither share interests with these others nor have the power to demand fair treatment. These conditions deny them the benefits of trust. Ironically, their distrust also inhibits the very actions policy-makers try to promote, such as marriage, long-term employment, and childcare use.

The alarming income gap of today’s Hard Times makes discussion of an intangible concept like trust feel like a luxury. But the trust gap between those in poverty and everyone else is a major form of inequality that demands our attention. Without trust, and the conditions to produce it, it is hard to get ahead.

 

Judith Levine is author of Ain’t No Trust: How Bosses, Boyfriends, and Bureaucrats Fail Low-Income Mothers and Why It Matters and Associate Professor of Sociology at Temple University.