Ruby K. Payne is a teacher who thinks that middle class teachers often fail to understand poor children because they don’t understand that the poor operate by different rules than the middle class.
In her book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, she says that holding on to poverty’s survival rules will hamper you if you try to function in the middle class.
It is not that one is good and the other is bad. It is that their situations are different. If you don’t know from one month to the next whether you’re going to be able to pay the rent, for example, you aren’t likely to planning your career goals for 10 years from now.
Social class is a taboo topic among Americans. So long as we can see somebody below us on the social and economic scale, and somebody able us, we think of ourselves as middle class, even if we’re in the lower 10 percent or the upper 10 percent of income earners.
Thinking of ourselves as all “middle class” binds us Americans together. As Ruby Payne points out, it also blinds us to real differences.
I think Payne’s ideas are valuable, provided you remember the limitations of sweeping generalizations.
She makes a distinction between the culture of the “generational poor”, who’ve been poor from time immemorial, and the “situational poor,” who are formerly middle class people who’ve suffered misfortune.
I see distinctions between the blue-collar wage-earning middle class and the white-collar salaried middle class, and between the newly rich and the generational rich.
There also are different subcultures among different ethnic groups and different regions of the country. And within each group, each person is a unique individual, with their own talents and their own character.
But taking all these things into account, what she writes rings true. People can live in different worlds and never know it. As my mother used to say, “Half the world doesn’t know how the other half lives.”
I was surprised to learn that Payne’s ideas are controversial in some circles. Her critics say she is blaming the victim. They say her concentration on helping students rise out of poverty individually detracts from the need to change society as a whole.
It’s complicated. It is true that there are certain kinds of attitudes and behaviors that will keep you in poverty, no matter what. And it also is true that it is very easy not to realize this, if most of the people around you have the same attitude.
It also is true that education in and of itself can’t rescue all poor people from poverty. If the economic system is structured so that a certain minimum number of people are going to be unemployed, and another minimum number of people are going to be working for poverty incomes, teaching middle-class behavior to children from poverty backgrounds won’t change this.
But if children in poverty learn to function in the middle class, and don’t forget where they came from, they are in a better position to work for social change when they grow up than if they were stuck in poverty. Bernie Sanders is an example of this.
The Class Consciousness Raiser by Paul Tough for the New York Times.
A Framework for Understanding Poverty: An Overview: a slide show by Ruby K. Payne.
An Interview With Ruby Payne About Teaching Children in Poverty by Michael F. Shaughnessy for Education News.
Unspoken Class Rules by Hayley Hewett for Everything Beautiful in Its Time
The Question of Class by Paul C. Gorski for the Southern Poverty Law Center. A critique of Ruby K. Payne.