Ruby K. Payne on understanding poverty

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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.

hidden-rules-among-classes2LINKS

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.

 

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10 Responses to “Ruby K. Payne on understanding poverty”

  1. Vincent Says:

    There are close parallels with the UK here, where the Government of Theresa May has reversed the decision of David Cameron (educated at Eton) to phase out grammar schools.

    And now, defying the multiple taboos on race, we in UK (via the Man Booker Prize) have discovered Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout, which makes its own contribution to debates about whether to blame victims or perpetrators, & spells out the interplay between facts & attitudes with a humour that smashes the rigid boundaries of political correctness with its broad and tolerant—Rabelaisian—humanity. So needed, this balm. Yet America being so much bigger than England, I don’t know what kind of a splash it can make in its native land. & perhaps it’s incurably romantic to suppose that a novel can turn a tide, especially in a species of war.

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  2. Kayla M. Says:

    While I understand why it is easy for many to criticize Ruby Payne’s work, I cannot but personally be thankful that I read her text and my criticisms of it are few. Being from the middle class myself and teaching in a low-income, high-poverty district, I have struggled for a very long time to understand why it is that my students can afford brand new Nike’s or Jordan’s and still have a lunch tab in the hundreds nearing thousands of dollars. Whereas I would pay the lunch tab first and then be concerned with new stylish shoes, reading Payne’s text did something for me that I should have been doing for years already: opening my eyes to differences that exist among different groups of people.

    Whereas it is easy to pass judgement on those who may find themselves in poverty (whether situational or generational), Payne helped to highlight some of the reasons for the choices that people of various classes make that I had never thought of. I think she has a lot of valuable ideas as long as you take them with a grain of salt. It is critical that you reflect on how a general situation or piece of research applies to your student population.

    The author in the blog above states that critics of Payne: “say that helping individuals to rise out of poverty detracts from the need to change society as a whole.” I think it actually does the opposite. If those in poverty learn to function in another class, they have more tools in their toolboxes and are more likely to have exposure to opportunities that will allow them to overcome those barriers associated with poverty. Education cannot fix everything however, and I do think that there is one element in Payne’s text that is lacking: student motivation and the desire for change. Part of being an educator is relaying, conveying, and helping students to realize that there is more to school than just the academic curriculum. It is a place where positive role models model appropriate behaviors and expectations. Students are held responsible and accountable in a respectable way and they in turn are better able to advocate for themselves and spur social change as the author of the blog above states.

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  3. Peggy W. Says:

    There is a great deal of controversy and opinions regarding Payne’s work. Setting aside some of the stereotypes, generalizations or lack of examining the issue of race, I too like the previous contributor feel a benefit from reading her work. For instance, there is nothing wrong with building relationships with our students and their families. In fact, I now consider more variables to a situation and how all involved can work towards a solution. Payne’s critics also dislike that she avoids addressing systems change on a national political scale. I understand the global scope of the problem, but everyday I am trying to help my students with what I can to support them in their role as student and a child. I will still role-model good manners, find them a snack if they forgot one and show them how their behavior choices affect others.

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    • Corri Says:

      Peggy,
      I agree that there is nothing wrong with building relationships with our students and their families. In order to best teach our students, we have to understand them and where they come from. As stated in the article, “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.” Ruby Payne discusses the registers of language and how different groups use them. In education everyone is supposed to use the formal register, which many students who live in poverty may not be able to understand. Students living in poverty are said to speak in a causal register and may need to learn a formal register to succeed in school. In the text, “A Framework for Understanding Poverty, a Cognitive Approach,” by Ruby Payne she states that, “For students who have no access to formal register, educators become frustrated with the tendency of these students to meander almost endlessly through topic” (p. 33). Teachers need to “train” students to think middle class in order for them to make it in public education and post-secondary education. However as stated in the text they can not forget where they came from. Although we are trying to get them out of poverty, when students look back to where they came from, they will be stronger and more empowered to continue to succeed.

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  4. philebersole Says:

    Lest there be any misunderstanding, I think Ruby K. Payne’s descriptions of the cultures of the different classes are important, useful and true—although maybe not all that needs to be said on the subject.

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  5. Josh Harms Says:

    I found Payne’s work very eye opening. After reading her book A framework for Understanding Poverty. It really helped me to understand how some one in poverty thinks. It also helped me to understand that how I interacted with my students who grew up in poverty is not the same as the way my parents raised me.

    As for the previous comments that deal with race, I feel that she specifically excluded race in order to give us a general idea on how to help our students succeed.

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    • Maria Callahan Says:

      I agree with Josh in that my eyes were opened after reading Payne’s book as to how someone in poverty thinks and the differences among classes in the way various categories of life are looked at. It gave me ideas to think about when working with students who are economically disadvantaged. I agree with Payne’s thoughts of building relationships with students and their families. It was also interesting to read to difference between formal and casual registers within language. Students need to be taught how to communicate in the formal register in order to succeed in school. We want to be able to give students the tools to help empower them to succeed.

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  6. Kimberly F Says:

    After reading Payne’s text, she opened my eyes to people who live in poverty. I feel as though I have a better understanding of how they think. Even though Payne’s thoughts are controversial, I must say that I agree with a lot of what she said. I teach in a high poverty school where a vast majority of my students are on free or reduced lunch. There have been many occasions where students, who I know live in poverty, come to school wearing dirty shirts and pants, but have the newest Jordan’s on their feet. I couldn’t understand how or why someone could have the newest Jordan’s, yet still be living on the link card (food stamps). After reading the book, I now have a better understanding of their perception. Additionally, I feel that I am better able to understand, communicate, and form relationships with students and families who come from poverty.

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  7. stacey French Says:

    I know that Payne’s thoughts are controversial to many, but to be honest with you I agree with a lot of what she says. For my entire life I have grown up in a middle class family and still am to this day now with my husband and children. Growing up I was never really around children that were living in poverty. (that I knew of) So to read the text that Payne provided and to take a close look at the different characteristic of the people in the different classes I was very surprised. As awful as it sounds, when you are not faced or around those situations or people on a daily basis we tend to forget or not realize that people are living in those circumstances. After reading her book I feel as though I have a better understanding of the people living in poverty as well as the different things that I can do as a teacher to help build those relationships and connections with the students and families.

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  8. LisaN Says:

    As I have completed reading Payne’s book for a class, i found it to be interesting as well as informational. Like any book, idea, not everyone will agree with what is said. Payne provided me with some insights that I had never thought about or considered. The difference in how people of different classes thinks was quite interesting. I will have a different perspective and understanding now when working my students and parents of poverty. I will take into consideration of the reason they are behaving the way they are and perhaps why they don’t get their homework in.
    By bringing awareness to teachers, we can better meet the needs of these students. The more we know, the more we can help our students. You may not agree with all that Payne says, but there are great points made that can be incorporated into any classroom.

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