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Speaker to share how distrust contributes to poverty

November 19, 2013

Many of the issues associated with poverty in the United States are obvious, such as unemployment, single-parent families and declining wages for less-educated workers. But Temple University sociologist Judith Levine uncovered another, less obvious issue that contributes to poverty: distrust.

Photo: Judith Levine

Judith Levine

“Ain’t No Trust: Low-Income Mothers, Suspicion, and Stalled Action in the Welfare Reform Era,” Levine’s free seminar hosted by the UW–Madison Institute for Research on Poverty, will take place from 12:15 to 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 21 in room 8417 of the W. H. Sewell Social Science Building, 1180 Observatory Drive.

Addressing the issue of mistrust may provide another key to helping poor families improve their economic situation. When Levine started interviewing low-income mothers in the mid-1990s, she was interested in their struggles with raising children in poverty and how they made ends meet, not in how the fathers of their kids were unfaithful or caseworkers misrepresented benefits.

But by the time she had completed two rounds of interviews, Levine was convinced that the women’s struggles with poverty could not be adequately understood without considering the role of distrust in their lives.

She expected that women she spoke with in the second round of interviews — completed in the mid-2000s following welfare reform and its emphasis on increasing self-sufficiency through job preparation, work, and marriage — would describe dramatically different lives.

But they didn’t. The mothers described the same problems, including struggles with distrust, as the women Levine had spoken with 10 years earlier.

“Distrust kept them from believing in the work incentives built into welfare,” Levine says. “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.”

With more than 40 percent of U.S. children born to unmarried mothers, and some 70 percent of children in single-mother families living near or below the poverty line, understanding what poor single mothers are up against, including the role of distrust in their lives, is essential for creating effective antipoverty policies for them and their children.

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

Levine will also discuss her new book, “Ain’t No Trust: How Bosses, Boyfriends and Bureaucrats Fail Low-Income Mothers and Why It Matters.”

—Deborah Johnson