Once upon a time I studied for a graduate degree in political theory, and after months of listening to my fellow students’ endless pontificating about the definition of the concept of “toleration”, I concluded that only those who had never had the experience of being tolerated could conduct such a lengthy and ineffectual deliberation. That particular memory, and the frustration associated with it, came flooding back as I read Ain’t No Trust. Is it really necessary to invest a significant amount of research money to discover that 95 women on welfare in Chicago tend to not trust benefits advisers, supervisors in low-paid jobs and unregulated low-cost childcare providers?
Through two sets of research interviews, one set before and one set after the US welfare reforms of 1997, Judith Levine tells stories of women who have relied on government direct payments and other forms of welfare. She concludes that despite public perceptions of “welfare queens”, the women’s experiences of engagement with the state, employers, child carers and boyfriends are marked by “erratic, irresponsible or untrustworthy” actions that produce a distrust that blocks them from a more “positive lifestyle”.
The stories are extremely moving and paint a vivid picture of poverty in the US, where a welfare recipient’s income is less than a third of those living at the poverty line
For example, women on welfare believe that caseworkers, as representatives of the state, will parcel out benefits only to those who are truly deserving. Once they are placed in a McJob, their bosses – keenly aware of the US’ large pool of unskilled labour – have licence to berate, harass and discriminate against them at will. The stories of individual women are extremely moving and paint a vivid picture of poverty in the US, where a welfare recipient’s income is less than a third of those living at the poverty line.
The US lacks a commitment to basic welfare that is unfathomable to most Britons. Moreover, most Americans lack the ability to frame the problems facing the country in terms of class. Former US senator and Republican presidential contender Rick Santorum recently declared that any discussion of the middle class was “Marxist talk”. Although Levine writes about “structural issues” and “powerlessness”, she avoids the word “class”. Instead, she labels this new phenomenon herself: “what I have called the US stratification system”.
Of course, there is another topic that white Americans regularly avoid: race. Although 90 per cent of the women interviewed here are Latina or African-American, Levine ignores this fact completely in her analysis of the problem or cursory attempts at any solutions. Maybe I’m being too harsh. As a white Texan, obviously, I was not taught the language of Marx and I certainly had a lot to learn about racial (in)equality. Then again, maybe I am not. As a mature academic, I have a responsibility to offer analysis that is politically and economically informed, and that includes rational consideration of the intersections of race, gender and class.
At its heart, Ain’t No Trust suffers from an unresolved political tension. Women on welfare don’t trust the system and, Levine argues, this is why welfare reform is not successful. Framed this way, there are only two solutions to this problem.
First, women need to trust more. Try as she might to avoid articulating this option, Levine peppers her accounts with caveats that these are just women’s perceptions of the system and may not reflect the reality. Second, the system should be more trustworthy. Levine suggests that social workers should monitor job placements for harassment and discrimination by employers. The ideological underpinning of the former is individualism while the latter surprisingly endorses “big government”.
If I can forgive the nascent thoughts of privileged graduate students discovering toleration, maybe I should forgive Levine for snagging her trousers on fences that divide America and not being able to offer any politically coherent solutions. Maybe.
Ain’t No Trust: How Bosses, Boyfriends and Bureaucrats Fail Low-Income Mothers and Why it Matters
By Judith A. Levine
University of California Press, 314pp, £52.00 and £19.95
ISBN 97805204716, 4723 and 9780520956919 (e-book)
Published 5 July 2013