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 be 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 above 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 still 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.


Ruby K. Payne’s blog.  [Added 3/30/2019]

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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18 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.


    • Corri Says:

      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.


  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.


  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.


    • 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.


  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.


    • Jean Sames Says:

      I agree with Kim in her confusion of why students could wear the newest shoes but yet be living on welfare. When you look at the hidden rules for all three classes it makes sense. Them going on a cruise for vacation but yet they have a car that is broken down and unable to be used – but yet they do not get it fixed. Having an extra $20 dollars and going to dinner, instead of saving that in case they need it for some other, what seems more important to me. But reading this book makes me feel like I can be less judgmental and more understanding of their decisions and why they are made.


  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.


  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.


  9. Deborah Vogue Says:

    Working as a remedial reading teacher in a moderate to high poverty middle school, much of what Ruby Payne cited as behavioral characteristics of children living in poverty strongly resonated with me. As teachers, we are looking for a way to connect with these students and eager to adopt strategies to help make them successful. By comprehending the typical poverty profile of these students (albeit somewhat stereotypical) helps create not only tolerance but also a roadmap of where we want to go and how to get there. One text cannot be a panacea for children living in poverty.
    While I understand the criticisms surrounding the text (i.e. causal systems, focusing on weaknesses, stereotyping, lack of cited evidence) A Framework for Understanding Poverty does just that, provides us with a rich description of a life of poverty and strategies to help these students succeed. Practical strategies articulated in this text including how to engage with these students, provide support and establish consistent family communications are invaluable to me as a teacher. I, in no way, feel this has caused me to view poverty-stricken students in a “less than” light, rather it has instilled in me more tolerance and a set of strategies I am eager to use to create success.


  10. Jean Sames Says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading Payne’s book and do not really understand the controversy surrounding it. Does it answer all the questions about poverty? No. Does it give all recommended interventions? No. Does she talk of race or gender inequality? No. But I do not feel that Payne meant for her book to be the “only” book to assess and intervene with the issue of poverty. I feel like it is one approach and a very important one.
    If you work in education it is clear that the concepts she discusses is true and answers many questions I had about why our students from low income, or poverty households act the way they do. It is easy to blame the parents for why their child seems “out of control” when they first come to school. But now after reading Payne’s book I realize that both how students speak and how they behave is greatly related to their home life prior to coming to school. Learning about language register and how they tell their stories explain a lot of how they act. It is not rude or considered inappropriate to them to interrupt or act like the class clown. To them they are a person of worth because of their skill.
    I also feel like when you look at the hidden rules discussed in her book it makes their behavior much more understandable. When they have the nicest cell phone to use and the best shoes to wear but do not have lunch money. I always found that hard to understand because I couldn’t afford the cell phone or the designer shoes and I was working. But when looking at the hidden rules and what poor individuals consider “important” and what middle class individuals consider important makes it more understandable.
    If we can better understand our students and work in small ways to make their life better and get them to understand middle class values – possibly strive for middle class lives, we have done something in our careers above just teaching these students. If we change one students life, that is one life that possibly can move beyond their existence of only living in poverty.


  11. Lorissa Kelly Says:

    I read her book for a course on poverty I am taking at the graduate level. I feel that most of the information that was highlighted throughout the nook is common knowledge, or at least, should be. I believe that if you are an educator in a school district that has any representation of peoples from lower socioeconomic classes, you should know the “hidden rules” of poverty and how to best meet the needs of those students. I don’t feel that by reading her book I learned anything I didn’t already know or practice in my profession.


  12. Mopar Says:

    I think that her intentions are well meant. It is now up to us to do our own research and make our own views on how we as educators are going to make a change in our classrooms. Take what you will from reading Payne’s book and make the best of it. I know that I learned from her “hidden rules” and will make an effort to change my way of thinking. Am I saying that her way is the best, no although I will grow from what I learned and that is important.


  13. AngieM Says:

    I recently read Payne’s book, “A Framework for Understanding Poverty,” and found it to be thought provoking and challenging. It’s interesting to read so much controversy regarding Ruby Payne’s work. She is criticized for not addressing race, gender, disability, and illness, unemployment, addiction, drugs, crime and discrimination. However, she specifically writes “the purpose of this book is to help those teachers, principals, and district leaders, counselors, school nurses, and the many other educators who work with the poor to positively impact the opportunities of their students/clients.” She also states, “The purpose of this book is not to explain all the causes of poverty.” I commend her for taking on such a difficult topic and for making herself vulnerable by offering educators a resource to better our skills. Even though I may not agree with everything she writes, I am human enough to accept the ideas that are fitting for my teaching assignment and style. She offers a lot of insight and after reading her work, one must consider how her writing opens your eyes to the hidden rules among social classes. I agree that giving our students the tools to be successful in multiple situations has always been a goal and will benefit students in the long run. She has challenged me. After reading her book, I will strive to be a better educator and create more positive interactions with my students.


    • philebersole Says:

      J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy> is a good example of someone who navigated the journey from the culture of poverty to the culture of the middle class and then to the very different culture of wealth.


  14. Michael Says:


    I recently read Payne’s book for the second time and can completely understand the controversy surrounding her opinions outlined in the text. My first read of the book was approximately 18 years ago when I was getting my master’s degree. At that time, it was an awesome read and very informational for a new educator just getting adapted to students living in poverty before my biases and stereotypes consumed my thoughts. During that period, it was a lot of focus on education reform as poverty was on the rise. Now as a veteran educator that is seasoned in the field of urban education and dealing with both students, parents, and the stakeholders living in poverty, I have to agree that the 5th edition of “a framework for understanding poverty,” by Rudy Payne is lacking some of the essential factors that include race, gender, disability, illness, unemployment, addiction, drugs, crime and discrimination. However, the book is still an awesome overview of the basics surrounding the ideals of living in poverty, generational poverty, hidden rules, and the emotional resource management. I feel that the text is has great concepts and key points and focuses on the surface of students and parents living in poverty. You are correct as Dr. Payne does express that “the purpose of this book is to help those teachers, principals, and district leaders, counselors, school nurses, and the many other educators who work with the poor to positively impact the opportunities of their students/clients,” and that “The purpose of this book is not to explain all the causes of poverty.” I too commend Dr. Payne for taking on such a difficult topic and for making herself vulnerable by offering educators a resource to better our skills. Angie, if you are not aware Dr. Payne has just released (Nov 2018) her 6th edition of the book and have attempted to end a lot of the controversy as she added 3 chapters that focus on race/poverty/intersectionality, poverty and brain development, and immigration and poverty (Who are the parents of students in poverty). These chapters will definitely add depth to her already extensive research on poverty and I look forward to reading her new research on the topic.


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