Why Low Income Equals Low Trust

Distrust is not a personality trait, nor a cultural trait. It is learned through experience, and can therefore be unlearned through experience. 

Back in 1996 welfare as we knew it was forever changed by President Clinton. But while public policy can address issues like food stamps, child care, Medicaid, and many other aspects, it can never address issues of trust.


We know from Civil Rights legislation that no matter what the policy prescriptions, you can’t address what’s in the human heart. In the panoply of issues surrounding welfare, you might not think that trust was paramount.

However, in this week's Specific Gravity interview, Temple University Professor Judith Levine, author of Ain't No Trust: How Bosses, Boyfriends, and Bureaucrats Fail Low-Income Mothers and Why It Matters, says that distrust is one of the defining issues for low income women.

Why is distrust such a major issue?

"We are talking about people who are so economically insecure," Levine tells Jeff Schechtman in the interview below, "that if something goes wrong, they fall into a desperate situation." Therefore, the stakes of making a bad trust decision are very high. 

Levine says that when you know that your interests are not aligned with the people that you are interacting with, that is a recipe for distrust. Levine finds this to be the case in personal relationships as well as in relationships with institutions, which are mediated by people. 

Low income people often encounter what Levine calls "street-level bureaucracy." In other words, the official rules are not what really happens in practice. The rules are what people at the street level - case workers in welfare offices - happen to enact. Levine points out that case workers are not bad people. They are workers who are technically charged with transitioning people into the labor force but are also tasked with servicing people with all kinds of needs - including people who are victims of abuse. Distrust makes this job all the more difficult. 

So how can we close the trust deficit?

Levine says that higher quality services are key. For instance, many low income mothers that Levine spoke to have had very bad experiences with child care. Higher quality child care, Levine says, would improve the trustworthiness of child care. 

Distrust, is, after all, not a personality trait, nor a cultural trait. It is learned through experience, Levine says. It can therefore be unlearned through experience. But this experience, Levine says, needs to be "strong and consistent."

Listen to the podcast here:

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