Blue Shirt Tuesday

Friday, September 15, 2006

A Framework for Understanding Poverty, by Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D.

Ruby Payne’s Framework for Understanding Poverty has helped me understand my students better than anything else I’ve read. Her book is based on her observations as an educator in low-income, middle-class, and wealthy schools, and a good deal of research. The most interesting aspect of the book, for me, is the way in which Payne outlines specific differences between the rules that govern each class. What amazed me was how different they are.

Obviously, life is different depending on how much money you have. I’ve tended to think about these differences are largely monetary, though, and I’ve never fully accounted for the cultural differences that go along with poverty. One useful distinction that Payne makes is the difference between situational poverty and generational poverty. Anyone can be poor, but if you’re raised in a middle class culture and suddenly find yourself without money, you are in a much different position than if your ancestors have always been poor. One of the main differences is that people in generational poverty often do not know the hidden rules of the middle class (just as most people in the middle class do not know the hidden rules of poverty). Knowledge of these rules is usually essential to escaping poverty.

I’ve thought to myself before about what I’d do if I were poor. I’d study hard at whatever public school I’d go to. I’d get a scholarship to a public university. I’d study hard and get a good job. Bingo! Poor no more.

What I haven’t considered is how hard it would be to do just that if I didn’t have the values that I was raised with. It wouldn’t be impossible, but it sure would be a lot harder.

Payne’s book is full of stereotypes and generalizations, but they are useful generalizations, as long as you take account of the exceptions. Her descriptions of the hidden rules of the different classes really reflect a lot of what I’ve seen down here while teaching. For example: Money in poverty is to be spent, in the middle class it is to be managed, and in wealth it is to be invested. In poverty, people worry about the quantity of food, in the middle class they worry about the quality, in wealth they worry about the presentation. Poor families tend to be matriarchal while middle class families tend to be patriarchal. And that sort of thing.

Payne has some suggestions for how understanding the hidden rules among classes should affect ones interactions. Not so much that I should expect my students to have different values than I do, but rather that when they exhibit a behavior that I find conflicting, I can understand where it comes from and what it means.

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