Flor Romero, a twenty-eight-year-old single mother of two young daughters, was having a hard time finding a job that paid a living wage in Chicago. She had worked steadily for four years making ten dollars an hour at a dollar store in Texas, where she lived with her husband. But when Flor’s mother become terminally ill, she hastily made plans to visit her in Chicago. Her boss said not to expect her job when she got back. Her mother died ten days later, and Flor was unemployed. When her marriage broke up the next year Flor decided to try to make a go of it in Chicago where she could live with her father and her family members could help with the girls.

After a few months of unsuccessful job hunting, Flor turned for support to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, the main cash assistance program for low-income parents and children. TANF, the successor of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, was initiated under the 1996 welfare reforms, with the goal of moving people from assistance into work using a variety of supports. Flor’s caseworker told her she should take a job even if it did not pay enough to live on because work supports would allow her to keep drawing a portion of her public assistance grant even if she had income from work. The caseworker assured Flor she would always have more to live on if she worked than if she received welfare alone. Flor wasn’t buying it. “They lie,” she said, “The second they know you are working, they cut you off completely.” Though Flor knew she faced time limits and work requirements, she considered it too risky to take a job that would leave her unable to feed and care for her children. She just did not trust the promised work supports would be there.

Flor is not alone. I interviewed ninety-five low-income women for my research on how the climate of distrust reinforces poverty. Many expressed high levels of distrust in employers, child care providers, romantic partners, and, even sometimes friends and family members. This expression of distrust surfaced across race, age, education, work history, number of children, marital status, and a host of other factors.

Why does distrust matter?

The passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) in 1996 ushered in a set of social welfare policies designed to encourage employment, marriage, paternal involvement, use of child care to enable work, reliance on family rather than the government, and, above all else, the temporary use of cash assistance. But distrust makes every one of these outcomes less likely to occur.

Women who do not trust employers to treat them fairly quit their jobs. Women who do not trust the fathers of their children to be reliable financial and emotional supports do not marry them. Women who do not trust child-care providers to keep children safe do not keep their children in child care (and often lose their jobs as a result). Women who do not trust their family members do not expose themselves to risk by asking for their help. And women who do not trust their caseworkers do not respond to the voluntary incentives designed to move them into the labor market.

Trust is valuable, but it is in short supply among low-income people who do not feel their circumstances make trusting safe. As sociologist James Coleman argued in his classic work on social capital, trust can ease business practices, make parenting easier, and lead to more efficient ways of getting things done. Francis Fukuyama calls trust a “lubricant” for these reasons. Those with the most material resources often interact with others who stand to gain from exchanges of trust with them and such aligning of interests promotes trust. And they have the power to make others accountable to them, which encourages trustworthy behavior in others. Meanwhile, many studies show that the disadvantaged—the very people most in need of trust’s benefits—are the least likely to trust. This may be for good reason. Many poor mothers encounter people who prove untrustworthy: caseworkers who cut them off of benefits, even if they legally qualify; employers who fail to pay wages or who allow sub-standard working conditions; boyfriends whose own problems wreak havoc in their households; child care providers who neglect or mistreat their children; and family or friends so desperate themselves that they betray them in myriad ways.

Trust is valuable, but it is in short supply among low-income people who don’t feel trusting is safe.

While it is possible that distrust may sometimes bar low-income women from economic and social gain, it is also possible that, given their circumstances, distrust protects them. As Russell Hardin explains, “Trust is functional in a world in which trust pays off. Distrust is functional in a world in which trust does not pay off.” Low-income mothers sit at the bottom of every hierarchy: they have the poorest families, are the lowest-wage workers, and wield the least power in welfare offices. They often have different interests than the people with whom they interact and little power to enforce fair treatment. It is the structural context in which low-income mothers find themselves that leads to their distrust. And the fact that trust pays off for the advantaged and does not for low-income families is yet one more form of inequality.

Welfare reform policies are often misaligned with these realities. Every time a mother grapples with a policy that fails to recognize the challenges she faces, her suspicions deepen, and justifiably so: policies that do not take her circumstances into account are unlikely to serve her well. If the goal of policy is not simply to reduce the welfare rolls but to lift families out of poverty, then earning the trust of low-income mothers themselves is crucial.

How can that be done? We cannot build trust simply by attempting to “fix” low-income women’s beliefs while ignoring what leads low-income mothers to distrust in the first place. Instead, we have to build the trustworthiness of those around them and design policies more responsive to their needs. The best way to do so would be through deep structural transformations in major systems: the labor market, the welfare state, and the distribution of income. Yet none of these transformations is likely given the current political and social environment. Below I look closely at the flaws in particular policies and suggest more modest changes that could promote trust and trustworthiness within the existing structures.

Work-Family, Not Work First

Work First policy moves welfare recipients into work activity without education and with virtually no training, and many of the jobs provided by welfare-to-work programs do not offer enough hours to provide an adequate income. While many welfare recipients agree with welfare reform’s focus on transition into the workforce, the women I interviewed find the inflexibility of Work-First approaches extremely onerous. In Chicago, most applicants must “work for their check” immediately upon applying for benefits by performing work tasks in settings assigned by the welfare office. Job search requirements begin as soon as applications are approved.

Often, mothers must take jobs too inflexible to meet the demands of single parenthood. Jane Collins and Victoria Mayer’s interviews in Wisconsin show in great detail how inflexibility thwarts the stable work transitions of even the most job-ready and committed workers. Low-wage jobs often require non-standard work hours and change work schedules from week to week. Many do not allow parents to take time off to attend school meetings or children’s doctor’s appointments and are especially inflexible when it comes to medical emergencies that make advance notice impossible. Others, such as big-box stores, actually lock employees in overnight—the subject of a New York Times article as well as a complaint of one of the women I interviewed, a mother of a ten-month-old son, who worked the night-shift on a cleaning crew management locked inside as an anti-theft measure.

Such requirements force mothers to scramble to find childcare, leaving no time to vet providers for their safety or reliability. As a result, childcare arrangements are at best a haphazard and temporary fix; at worst they put children at risk of great harm. Writing in The New Republic, Jonathan Cohn details the horrendous, sometimes deadly, costs of low-quality childcare. One woman I interviewed fired her babysitter after she repeatedly came home and found her children with bruises, bumps on their heads, and even minor burns. Another pulled her son out of a childcare center after he was bitten by another child three times in a single week and the center failed to respond to her complaints. Women’s distrust in childcare providers is largely based on experiences with providers who neglected or even abused their children.

Changing how states spend money on childcare would help. Welfare reform has addressed childcare issues only obliquely, devoting the vast majority of childcare funding to state subsidy programs. Only a tiny proportion of funding has gone into improving the quality of childcare available in their communities. Quality improvements would increase trust in childcare providers. Mothers also report that childcare subsidy payments are slow and unreliable. Just a little bit more flexibility in the process would go a long way toward fostering faith in the system. Slowing down the process enough so that mothers can find jobs with sustainable commutes and can secure feasible and reliable childcare arrangements would make a world of difference to these mothers.

Similarly, job-training programs would do well to teach mothers how to negotiate with employers who treat low-wage workers as dispensable. Learning how to write a résuméis fine, but learning workplace rights—how to handle mistreatment at work and advocate for oneself—would be more helpful in addressing distrust. Many of the women I interviewed quit jobs at the first sign their employers would not treat them fairly. Their distrust made them pessimistic about the value of speaking to HR departments or pursuing other avenues of complaint. And some simply did not know these avenues were available. Advance training in what power they have to demand fair treatment, small though it may be, could reduce employment turnover and turbulence in their lives.

A work-based welfare state won’t solve poverty when it is incompatible with mothers’ lives.

The work-centered welfare system also hangs too much hope on a labor market that does not cover the cost of subsistence for its lowest-level workers. Wages for low-skill workers have been eroding over the last few decades, and few job opportunities offer job security or benefits. A recent report on non-managerial fast-food workers, for example, shows that over half of them require public assistance—in addition to their wages—to make ends meet. The idea that we can solve the problem of poverty for low-income mothers and their children by forcing a quick transition into the labor market—while at the same time eradicating much of the safety net—fails to recognize the limitations of the current low-wage labor market to meet even the most basic needs of families. Nevertheless, we as a society appear completely committed to a work-based social welfare state.

It is possible, however, to promote work without vilifying non-workers. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a prime example. It is voluntary, substantial enough to have real incentive value, run outside of the welfare system, and reaches high enough into the income distribution that it does not single out only the most disadvantaged among us. We need more policies that support low-wage work without shaming those who find it difficult to sustain employment that is compatible with the responsibilities of parenthood.

Welfare Offices

Since welfare reform in 1996, caseworkers’ jobs have changed. Once check cutters, they are now full-blown case managers. Their caseloads are too big, and they are not given enough training or support. As Evelyn Brodkin’s work shows, they are rarely sanctioned for cutting people off from benefits for which they are actually eligible, for failing to clearly communicate welfare rules or the availability of work supports, or for treating people with disdain. While many caseworkers likely try to do their best under difficult circumstances, the women I interviewed spoke of hostile and oppositional relationships with their caseworkers.

Changing the atmosphere of welfare offices and restructuring interactions with clients would promote trust. The system needs smaller caseloads, more training, better accountability, and greater transparency. And the incentives for caseworkers should be shifted so that they are in line with the interests of their clients. The experimental New Hope project in Milwaukee achieved positive work outcomes in part through a very different incentive structure for the counselors assigned to helping clients move into the workforce.


Welfare reform attempted to promote marriage. But while many mothers I interviewed have no objection to marriage in the abstract, they don’t see marriage to the fathers of their children as advantageous, for a number of reasons. The men in their lives face an inhospitable labor market and, as a result, often engage in informal or illegal work, sometimes in the drug trade. The mothers, in turn, suspect the fathers cannot provide a stable and safe home environment. One mother described the police bursting into her home to arrest her partner while she and her frightened children looked on. Some of the men, demoralized by their inability to find and maintain mainstream jobs, struggled with depression and substance use. Rates of domestic violence were high.

Supporting low-income parents who see the potential for a constructive relationship makes sense, but forcing those who do not anticipate such potential into prolonged relationships does not. Marriage promotion programs that harp on platitudes about the value of marriage are unlikely to be effective. In contrast, voluntary programs that acknowledge a variety of family structures, respect these concerns, and address the serious challenges poverty poses to the stability of relationships are most likely to build trust both in the programs themselves and between the partners who participate in them.

Stigmatizing Policy

Finally, policies that stigmatize mothers—blaming them for the desperate situations they find themselves in—suggest that mainstream society itself does not trust low-income mothers. Nineteen states have passed pre-approval work search policies that require applicants for TANF to prove they have applied for a certain number of jobs before they seek cash assistance. There have been at least thirty proposals in different states for mandatory drug testing for welfare program applicants and recipients. A Tennessee state representative proposed that the state reduce TANF payments by 30 percent to families in which children performed poorly in school. Though he later withdrew this proposal, its very existence illustrates the distrust politicians have of low-income mothers, and the atmosphere of punishment that surrounds welfare.

Much of societal distrust in low-income mothers is based on incorrect perceptions. A substantial proportion of those in poverty are employed, some even full-time. Drug testing is expensive and only a tiny minority of cases test positive; in the four months that Florida drug tested TANF applicants, only 2.6 percent of applicants failed the test. These measures, therefore, are only obstacles to low-income families receiving benefits.

Much of societal distrust in low-income mothers is based on incorrect perceptions.

Such obstacles have obviously been effective. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that since the passage of the pre-approval work search policy in Pennsylvania, denials of welfare benefits went up between 20 and 30 percentage points. More generally, despite increased need during the recession, the TANF caseload has gone up very little, reflecting the shrinking of the safety net wrought by welfare reform. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, at the height of the recession, unemployment had gone up by 88 percent nationally but the TANF caseload had gone up by only 16 percent. Mary Jo Bane puts this point another way: between 2007 and 2011, the number of children in poverty went up by 3 million while the number of children receiving TANF went up by only half of a million. In 2010, of the 16.4 million children in poverty, only 3.2 million were receiving this cash assistance meant for needy families in times of economic crisis.

These policies nominally promote self-sufficiency by creating work incentives. But they send women the message that they are not trusted to be committed workers or good mothers—and that the appropriate solution is to force them into low-wage jobs and to deny them benefits.

Earning Trust

My work shows that low-income women distrust for a reason. Experience has taught them not to count on others. The suggestions above are small ways in which we can reduce distrust. Ridding the problem of distrust altogether would require deep changes to the structural conditions that shape low-income mothers’ lives. As long as we have a punitive and stigmatizing welfare state that does not provide an adequate level of support to families, and as long as families in poverty are stigmatized, low-income mothers will probably retain their distrust.

Some may feel that paying attention to distrust is a luxury in this time of budget crisis and in a political environment so hostile to public spending. Ignoring distrust, however, is short-sighted. Without trust, policies cannot achieve their goals. More importantly, the growing inequality in the United States is not only about income. It is also based on a wide gap in trust between the advantaged and disadvantaged.

This essay is based on Judith A. Levine’s research for Ain’t No Trust: How Bosses, Boyfriends, and Bureaucrats Fail Low-Income Mothers and Why It Matters (University of California Press, 2013).