Ruby K. Payne on understanding poverty


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.


Tags: , , , ,

4 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.


  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.


  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.


  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.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: