Interviews with low-income mothers reveal a missing piece in the poverty puzzle

November 18, 2013

Contact: Judith Levine,

MADISON—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 a researcher uncovered another, less obvious issue that contributes to poverty: distrust. Addressing the issue of mistrust may provide another key to helping poor families improve their economic situation.

When sociologist Judith 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.

Levine, a sociologist from Temple University, notes, "Distrust kept them from believing in the work incentives built into welfare, 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."

To learn about Levine's work, the UW–Madison Institute for Research on Poverty is hosting a seminar at 12:15 p.m. on November 21, "Ain't No Trust: Low-Income Mothers, Suspicion, and Stalled Action in the Welfare Reform Era," in 8417 Sewell Social Science building on Observatory Drive. She will also discuss her new book, Ain't No Trust: How Bosses, Boyfriends and Bureaucrats Fail Low-Income Mothers and Why It Matters. The lecture is free and the public is welcome to attend.

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.

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

—Deborah Johnson