Americans are certainly running low on many things. Depending on who you ask, we don’t have enough time, money, sense of collective responsibility, or any of a million other goods and virtues. One researcher, though, argues that at the low end of the income scale, the lack of an even less tangible commodity—trust—is causing all kinds of problems.
“Trust is really valuable,” explains Judith Levine, a sociologist at Temple University. “It makes everything smoother, and everything more efficient. It’s a shortcut, and people who trust each other are able to cooperate to achieve ends. So when there isn’t trust things don’t run smoothly. And I found that low-income women have very palpable and very high levels of distrust in many of the people they interact with.”
Levine’s research has most recently taken the form of a book released this past June, Ain’t No Trust: How Bosses, Boyfriends, and Bureaucrats Fail Low-Income Mothers and Why It Matters, and an adapted article in December’s Boston Review. What she’s found is that the day-to-day interactions many of us take for granted—easy back-and-forths and transactions with significant others, bosses, and employees at stores we patronize—are made much more difficult in the absence of trust as a social and transactional lubricant. Low-income women, having often been deceived or otherwise failed by various people and institutions tend to find it much harder to engage in various exchanges—some of which should be straightforward.
“Inequality is a real enemy of trust because the more unequal a society, the less people feel that they are sharing interests with others. And that’s not just a perception—that is a fact.”
Low-income women are often justified in their lack of trust, Levine says. “I argue in the book that most distrust comes from actual experience and is learned over time.”
Take welfare. Since welfare reform was signed by then-President Clinton in 1996, many case managers have been under “tremendous pressure,” as Levine puts it, to move their clients off of the welfare rolls. Welfare recipients know this, and as a result “don’t really trust anything that case workers say to them,” she explains. This, of course, makes it harder to administer the program, and for case workers to give their clients advice. But from the woman’s point of view, it’s arguably adaptive: if you know someone’s trying to take away the check that is help keeping you afloat, why would you trust anything they say? As Levine puts it, “This largely is women assessing the system and maybe often being right that those around them don’t share their interest and hence aren’t going to be reliable.”
But without this trust, the system itself can crumble. In Illinois, for example, there’s a policy that allows welfare recipients to continue getting a portion of their welfare income even after they’ve started bringing in money from a job—a handy way of tackling possible incentive effects associated with receiving benefits. But Levine discovered in her research that “women [there] didn’t believe that was actually going to happen.” That is, it didn’t matter that they were thoroughly informed about how the policy worked—a victory in and of itself given the common problem of low-income people being unaware of benefits for which they are eligible—because they simply didn’t trust the government representative trying to explain it to them.
Levine thinks this type of mistrust is symptomatic of much bigger, more profound issues.
“We are in a very bad place in terms of this,” she says. “And inequality is a real enemy of trust because the more unequal a society, the less people feel that they are sharing interests with others. And that’s not just a perception—that is a fact. So I don’t think we can fix this trust problem by trying to fix the women, by trying to convince them to be more trusting. This is not a personality flaw.”
What it is, she argues, is the result of a variety of factors—everything from the brutal low-income labor market for males to an unfair justice system—that, almost like a petri dish, offers an incredibly fertile environment for the development of mistrust.
Now, these are big problems that aren’t going away anytime soon. So the immediate challenge is to figure out ways to apply Levine’s research at the margins, to use it to patch creaky systems. “Short of major structural change, which we agree is maybe not that likely at the moment, I do think there are some smaller, practical changes that can be made,” she says.
When it comes to the welfare offices themselves, for example, “there’s a fair amount of research that suggests that people are cut off from benefits to which they should be getting, based on the rules of the program,” Levine says. So one relatively straightforward way to boost trust would be to emphasize to the case workers that they need to only kick people off the rolls when they are legally required to do so. That could help get them and their clients back on the same page.
Levine emphasized that middle- and upper-class people experience distrust in public life too, of course. It’s just that when they do, the fallout tends to be much different.
“It’s not that it’s so different from the DMV or from other bureaucracies that people in the middle class find frustrating,” Levine says. “The difference is that people in the middle class are not facing such incredible risks. If they have trouble getting their license renewed one day, they’re not going to lose their job, whereas people who need their license to do their low-level job may.”