by Jennifer C. Ng & John L. Rury — Teachers College Record, July 18, 2006
Current estimates show that historically high percentages of American children live in poverty. In order to serve them well, educators must understand the particular experiences and challenges these children face. Increasingly, the professional development of teachers on the topic is drawn from the work of Dr. Ruby Payne, a self-proclaimed expert on poverty and poor children. In this article, we examine the conceptual and empirical foundations of Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty and vignettes in an accompanying teacher workbook that depict the lives of poor children and their families. Situating Payne’s argument within decades of scholarship conceptualizing poverty, we assess the extent to which it accurately reflects a contemporary, research-based comprehension of the issue. Reminiscent of earlier “culture of poverty” perspectives, Payne’s work essentializes the values, behaviors, and orientations of poor people; reinforces misconceptions and popular stereotypes; and suggests poor people have choices about whether or not to remain in poverty. This has serious implications for how teachers come to understand the nature and causes of poverty, and it misdirects well-intentioned efforts to educate poor children by disregarding the larger social context in which they live and are expected to succeed.
Research indicates that poverty rates among American children have reached as high as 22 percent in recent years, and from this historically elevated figure, perhaps a third can be described as experiencing “persistent” or “long-term” poverty (Hernandez, 1997; Mayer, 1997; Brady, 2003). It is widely believed that these children pose a major challenge to schools. Many reside in central-city neighborhoods or relatively isolated rural areas, compounding existing obstacles to equal educational opportunities and academic success. (Books, 2004) Yet, studies consistently document that most educators themselves come from middle-class backgrounds, making it difficult for them to relate personally with students who live in poverty (Zeichner, 2003). As a result, the capacity of teachers to work with poor children is shaped by teacher educators, school district administrators, educational researchers, and other experts. It is not clear, however, just what lessons about the poor are being transmitted to teachers and other educators, and how they are being prepared to work with them more effectively. In the absence of a well-defined research base on educating children affected by poverty and corresponding programs of training and professional development, a wide range of perspectives and approaches can flourish.
Arguably, one of today’s most conspicuous speakers on issues of poverty and education is Dr. Ruby Payne, president of a company called “Aha Process, Inc.” and author of a self-published book titled A Framework for Understanding Poverty, currently in its fourth revised edition (2005). Payne has sold more than half a million copies of her book since 1996 as well as related workbook materials, and her organization conducts workshops and training sessions for tens of thousands of educators, administrators, and other human-service professionals across the country and abroad. A principal thrust of these activities is teaching people about poverty and working with poor children in school settings.
Payne’s remarkable popularity reflects growing concern about poverty and its effects on children’s educational experiences. As educators grapple with the challenge of meeting performance standards for all groups of students, districts have been actively seeking answers to the problem of working with children in poverty. Payne and her organization have been actively involved in these developments, providing professional development designed to explicitly address these issues. In this article, we examine the conceptual and empirical foundations of her work and conduct a critical analysis of descriptive case scenarios included in an accompanying workbook for teacher practice. What viewpoints do Payne’s ideas about poverty represent? And what recommendations are conveyed in these training sessions? Situating Payne’s argument within decades of scholarship about poverty, we assess the extent to which it accurately reflects a contemporary, research-based comprehension of the issue. The fact that her characterization of poverty mirrors earlier “culture of poverty” theses and lacks recognition of social structural dynamics contributing to inequality could have significant implications for how educators ultimately come to view poverty and the children who experience it.
Payne’s framework for understanding poverty
In the introduction of her book, Payne explains that her expertise on poverty resulted primarily from being married for over 30 years to her husband, Frank, who grew up in “situational” (or temporary) poverty, but lived for several years with others who were in “generational” (or long-term) poverty. As she spent time with his family and got to know “the many other players in [their] neighborhood,” her personal observations led her to conclude that there were major differences between those in generational poverty and those in the middle class—the most important of which were not about money (2005, p. 1). These insights were confirmed in her mind after Payne spent six years as a principal in an affluent, Illinois elementary school and was able to further contrast the differences she witnessed between children in poverty, the middle class, and wealth.
Payne recalls several informal conversations she had with concerned colleagues about the growing disciplinary problems they were experiencing as more and more of their students came from low-income families. She offered them her explanation of why these behaviors were occurring, and then word-of-mouth referrals from teachers, principals, district, and state officials launched her into a series of speaking engagements where she could more formally share her insights with other educational practitioners. Central to Payne’s analysis of poverty is the idea that there are “hidden rules” which distinguish the thinking, values, and behaviors of people in poverty from those who are middle class or wealthy. And because most schools operate from an implicitly middle-class perspective foreign to poor children, educators must first understand the class culture from which their students come and then teach them explicitly the rules of the middle class needed to function more successfully in schools and society.
According to Payne, poverty is characterized not only by lack of financial resources, but also the extent to which individuals possess other resources such as emotional stability, mental skills, spiritual guidance, physical health and mobility, support systems, role models, and knowledge of a group’s hidden rules (2005, p. 7). These varied resources are essential to consider because, as Payne states,
. . . the reality is that financial resources, while extremely important, do not explain the differences in the success with which individuals leave poverty nor the reasons that many stay in poverty. The ability to leave poverty is more dependent upon other resources than it is upon financial resources. (p. 8)
Payne argues the cultivation of emotional resources is of utmost importance, defined as “being able to choose and control emotional responses, particularly to negative situations, without engaging in self-destructive behavior. This is an internal resource and shows itself through stamina, perseverance, and choices” (2005, p. 7). The involvement of role models is critical, then, because “it is largely from role models that [a] person learns how to live life emotionally” (2005, p. 9). Although all individuals have role models, Payne cautions, “The question is the extent to which the role model is nurturing or appropriate” (2005, p. 9). Good role models and support systems should be able to offer advice about and demonstrate a more desirable alternative than living in poverty.
Being a teacher allows one quite naturally to serve as a role model or support to children in poverty. Payne explains,
Even with the financial resources, not every individual who received those finances would choose to live differently . . . But it is the responsibility of educators and others who work with the poor to teach the differences and skills/rules that will allow the individual to make the choice. (2005, p. 113)
A teacher’s involvement is essential since “many individuals stay in poverty because they don’t know there is a choice—and if they do know that, have no one to teach them hidden rules or provide resources” (2005, p. 62). Payne identifies education as:
. . . the key to getting out of, and staying out of, generational poverty. Individuals leave poverty for one of four reasons: a goal or vision of something they want to be or have; a situation that is so painful that anything would be better; someone who “sponsors” them (i.e., an educator or spouse or mentor or role model who shows them a different way or convinces them that they could live differently); or a specific talent or ability that provides an opportunity for them. (p. 61)
Given the “tremendous opportunities to influence some of the non-financial resources that make such a difference in students’ lives” (2005, p. 25), Payne recommends that educators first learn to analyze the resources poor students and their families have before offering advice to improve their situation. To this end, the workbook that accompanies Payne’s main text presents fourteen different scenarios of poor children and their current situations for educators to practice evaluating. Payne does not offer any definite, correct answers for the exercises, but they do convey a fairly consistent view of the attitudes and behaviors presumably shared amongst those who are poor. It is useful, for this reason, to carefully examine the descriptive case scenarios Payne provides in her effort to help educators better understand poverty, its effects on children, and its implications in school settings.
What characteristics and circumstances constitute poverty?
As indicated earlier, money is one of several resources included in Payne’s framework for understanding poverty, but she argues that it is of only slight to moderate importance compared to other factors. The logic of a position that seemingly disassociates one’s financial resources with one’s class status may initially seem perplexing. However, a closer examination of Payne’s descriptive scenarios depicting poor people’s lives helps to illuminate her overall view about how different resources function to maintain poverty, as well as her resulting recommendations.
For example, in her main text, Payne differentiates between situational poverty, a temporary state caused by circumstances such as death, illness, divorce, and generational poverty, a state which endures for two generations or more (2005, p. 3). The importance of this distinction is linked to the prevailing attitudes she associates with each group— people in situational poverty are often too proud to accept charity, whereas people in generational poverty believe society owes them a living (2005, p. 47). Representing the mentality of situational poverty in Payne’s accompanying workbook meant for teacher evaluation is Opie, a 12-year-old African American girl, and her mother, Oprah, a 32-year-old widow supporting a senile grandmother and unemployed uncle. Oprah works long hours as a domestic for a doctor, and although she is not paid very much, she takes public transportation and seems able to make ends meet. There is no mention of the family needing public aid, and in fact, Oprah is hoping to be able to save some money for future emergencies that might arise (1998, p. 16). Another example of situational poverty is Steve, a 17 year-old White male who was put out onto the streets by his alcoholic, abusive father. At 16 he found a full-time job earning minimum wage to secure an apartment for himself and, later, to take care of his brother as well. Steve works hard and “all [he] has time to do is go to work, go to school, and sleep” (1998, p. 23). In both scenarios, the individuals strive to be self-sufficient through legitimate forms of employment and persist in an effort to improve their life circumstances.
In contrast, though, the sense of entitlement supposedly fostered in generational poverty more commonly leads to illegitimate means of securing financial resources. For example, Juan is a six-year-old Hispanic boy who lives with his grandmother who cannot speak English, and a 25-year-old uncle, Ramon. Juan’s father was killed in a gang-related shooting and his mother is in jail, so Ramon looks after Juan. In order to support the family, Ramon sells drugs with his gang and makes an average of $1,000 a week. Ramon does not expect to live past his thirtieth birthday because of his dangerous lifestyle, but he continues leading his gang and plans to kill a rival gang member and then flee to Mexico for a while (1998, p. 18). A similar situation is discussed in the scenario about Geraldo, a 13-year-old Hispanic male who is a prominent gang member in his neighborhood. Geraldo remains involved with his gang as a “matter of pride,” and makes $4,000 in a week selling drugs, sharing it with 10 other members. Like Ramon, Geraldo anticipates he will be dead before he turns 25 and therefore believes, “You might as well enjoy life and girls.” Ultimately, Geraldo admits, “. . . faithful is not in my vocabulary. I’m only faithful to them streets” (1998, p. 22).
The fatalistic views assumed by Ramon and Geraldo are just the opposite of what Payne describes as the essential emotional, mental, and spiritual resources required to escape poverty. Because Payne generally conceives of poverty—and staying in poverty—as at least partly a matter of choice, an individual must have the ability to identify and reason through various courses of action, particularly those necessitating deferred gratification and personal restraint. The scenario of Magnolia, a 16-year-old White girl in tenth grade who single-handedly takes care of her eight siblings because her mother is neglectful and irresponsible, exemplifies a person who possesses these critical resources. Magnolia demonstrates her emotional resources by refusing to steal from others, even though her mother instructs her to do it so they can have food to eat and “[she] can’t remember a time when [she wasn’t] hungry sometime during the week” (1998, p. 24). However, Magnolia’s commitment to caring for her siblings is clear as she sneaks the welfare check out of the mailbox to buy food for the family before her mother can waste it gratuitously on herself. Magnolia gets Bs and Cs in school but aspires to be a teacher. Payne tells us that she could earn As if only there was time to do her homework and maximize her mental resources.
Magnolia, however, is an exceptional case in Payne’s workbook. Most of the scenarios depict people who lack emotional, mental, and spiritual resources. For example, Habib is a “likeable and easily persuaded” 18-year-old, African-American male whose one great attribute is that he is “one heck of a fighter” (1998, p. 21). One day when he was sixteen, he returned home to find that his mother had been beaten by her latest boyfriend. After calling an ambulance for her, Habib went looking for her boyfriend but decided it might be a good idea to break into and rob a pawnshop instead. Payne suggests that this course of action represented Habib trying to resolve his anger, and when he was caught, he also had a gun in his pocket. Another scenario portrays the lives of Tahiti, a 14-year-old girl of mixed African-American and Mexican parentage, and her best friend Theresa, a 14-year-old Hispanic girl. Neither of the girls does well in school, and Tahiti’s family life is fraught with drinking and abuse. In order to give their lives meaning, these girls actively try to get pregnant so they can “have something of [their] own” (1998, p. 25).
All of the people in Payne’s scenarios have physical resources, although they function differently for men and women. While men gain advantage from their ability to fight and willingness to utilize violence (as seen in the scenarios of Ramon, Geraldo, and Habib), Payne indicates that women can use their bodies and sex to elicit favors. The scenario of John and Adele best illustrates the significance of a woman’s physical resources. Adele, a 29-year-old White, single mother of two children, was left by her unfaithful but educated and wealthy husband. Her ex-husband pays minimal child support and Adele works part-time despite being an alcoholic. When Adele’s car breaks down, she is financially unable to have it fixed and may get fired if she cannot report to work the next day. Adele assesses the available choices and determines that one way to solve her problem is to invite the mechanic over for dinner. The mechanic later calls and invites her out to dinner instead, mentioning that they might be able to work something out in terms of payment. Adele thinks, “It has been a long time since [I] have been out, and he is good-looking and seems like a nice man” (1998, p. 15).
Payne suggests that Adele would likely benefit from having a support system for times of need, and that Ramon, Geraldo, and Habib could use role models to teach them appropriate, less destructive behaviors. The scenario of Wisteria and Eileen attests to the importance that Payne attributes to support from extended family. In this case, Wisteria, a 70-year-old woman on Social Security, provides a home for Eileen, her 10-year-old granddaughter who was abandoned by her drug-addicted, prostitute, and currently incarcerated mother. Wisteria only receives about $150 a week and is in declining health, but her willingness to take care of Eileen means that the child will not be placed in a foster home. Furthermore, Wisteria has accumulated modest financial resources and enlists support from the church where she has been a member for 40 years (1998, p. 17).
The church is a critical institution in Payne’s view, but it is unable to address the problems of poverty by itself. A church serves as a social support in the scenario about Maria and Noemi, a Hispanic mother-and-daughter pair from a devout Catholic family that receives food stamps but is otherwise quite loving and intact. What Payne suggests 10-year-old Maria learns from Noemi’s role-modeling, however, is that she should get married, have children, and stay home like her mother (1998, p. 19). Similar patterns of early pregnancy are also perpetuated by the maternal example in the scenario of Tijuana Checosovakia, a 14-year-old African-American girl who had her first child when she was 11 (1998, p. 20); Sally’s 15-year-old sister in the scenario of Sally and Sueann (1998, p. 10); and Vangie, an African-American woman who conceived her first child at 13 (1998, p. 12). Again, for Payne it is emotional and moral resources that count more than financial support. Even if the individuals and families in her various scenarios have adequate material means of subsistence, it is their values and behavior that most critically determine their prospects for escaping poverty.
Interestingly, the primary positive role models mentioned in Payne’s scenarios are educators. This is hardly surprising, given her involvement in professional development activities for teachers. For instance, Magnolia’s aspiration to become a teacher (discussed earlier) was inspired by the kindness of her own fifth-grade teacher who provided a Thanksgiving meal for her hungry family. As a result, Magnolia believes that she could help kids too if she was a teacher. In the scenario about Steve (also discussed earlier), it is a school counselor who persuades him to stay in school and graduate even though he is exhausted trying to balance a full-time job and classes. The counselor expresses faith in Steve’s ability to learn, and personally meets him at 7:00 in the morning to provide algebra tutorials.
Through these interactions with teachers and other school officials, Magnolia and Steve have role models who can serve as their “sponsors” out of poverty. They can, in other words, finally be provided an opportunity to learn the hidden rules of the middle class to do well in school and become financially self-supporting, successful members of our society. Of course, these also are examples of educators who are going beyond the general call of duty, working with students outside of the normal workday and using their own resources rather than those of the school or district. What these individuals draw upon are emotional and moral resources as well, and their examples in Payne’s scenarios reinforce the emphasis that she places upon these attributes. In framing the social problem of poverty in such basic human terms, Payne adds considerable force to her arguments about its origins and the possibilities for its resolution. On the other hand, the reality of working with such students is often considerably more complicated than her scenarios may suggest, and poverty may not be as closely tied to morality and associated “hidden rules” as she seems to believe.
A critique of Payne’s framework
Without doubt, the conceptual clarity and apparent applicability of Payne’s framework for understanding poverty are among its primary assets. Yet, given the heated scholarly debates regarding poverty over the last several decades, her authoritative-sounding pronouncements about children’s socioeconomic status and their educational and behavioral outcomes are rather remarkable. This apparent certainty appeals to many people’s common-sense notions of how poverty functions and how it can be eliminated. It is important to note, however, that the underlying logic of Payne’s conception of poverty is not well-supported by contemporary social science research, and her straightforward explanations and conclusions may hold problematic implications for poor children and those educators who serve them. In the discussion that follows, we consider a number of potential criticisms of Payne’s work, including her selective use of social science research to support her arguments about the impact of poverty on education and other outcomes for children in society.
One problem in Payne’s framework of poverty is the extent to which she essentializes the values, behaviors, and orientations of those who are poor. Although Payne distinguishes between different circumstances of poverty, she routinely describes the poor in sweeping fashion as individuals who differ markedly from others in the middle and wealthy classes. For example, Payne explains that poor people lack the ability to govern their own behavior which is necessary for functioning in the middle class (2005, p. 77). As a result, the scenarios discussed earlier in this article are intended to illustrate how “the line between what is legal and illegal is thin and often crossed” so that the poor “simply see jail as a part of life and not necessarily always bad” (2005, p. 22). Also, she maintains that the poor assume their life circumstances are inevitable, so money is either shared or spent immediately. Disciplinary action is seen as being about penance and forgiveness rather than really changing negative behaviors; men value hard labor and identify as “a lover” and “a fighter” with bars and work as their main social outlets; and women learn that “sex will bring in money and favors. Values are important, but they don’t put food on the table—or bring relief from intense pressure” (2005, p. 23–24).
Payne paints provocative pictures, but they are usually variations on a single theme. Life in poor families is characterized by constant chatter and background noise from the TV which is almost always on; disorganization and clutter; matriarchal and extended family structures; and multiple internal feuds “with nearly everyone having multiple relationships, some legal and some not” (2005, p. 51–56). Such scenarios convey powerful images, and all but a couple of them depict poor people as engaging in behavior of questionable moral character. Even if the main character in a story is a largely innocent student, she or he is usually presented as contending with adults who have proven to be morally weak. Whether it is an out-of-work uncle or a father in jail, an unwed pregnant sister or a drunken mother, the children in these stories are victims of the adults who have failed them. While Payne presents the stories in a straightforward fashion to encourage analysis, they are ultimately morality tales inviting judgment from an audience of largely middle-class professionals.
A second concern is that Payne’s essentialized portrayal of the poor and problems related to poverty can lead to misconceptions or contribute to popular stereotypes about people in poverty. As noted earlier, central to Payne’s analysis of poverty is the idea that there are “hidden rules” or “mental models” which distinguish the thinking and behavior of people who are poor from those who are middle class and wealthy. In identifying these characteristics, Payne appears to rely heavily on the work of Oscar Lewis (1968), Michael Harrington (1962), Richard Sennett (Sennett & Cobb, 1973), and other writers from the 1960s and early 1970s who, to one degree or another, endorsed a “culture of poverty” thesis about behavioral differences between the poor and others. Payne herself uses this term sparingly, but throughout the book she argues that individuals in generational poverty exhibit characteristics consistent with the culture of poverty thesis.
As evident in the descriptive scenarios, the poor are generally depicted as having a weak work ethic, little sense of internal discipline or future orientation, and leading lives characterized to one extent or another by disorder and violence. In making these characterizations, Payne seems to be unaware of the many studies dating from the late 1960s that challenged the culture of poverty thesis, in many instances directly testing the extent to which traits such as these were more prevalent among the poor than other groups. By and large, these studies found that such characteristics were not more likely to be evident in poor individuals or households. Indeed, people in poverty valued work, saving money, behaving properly, maintaining stable families, and a number of other “middle-class” attributes as much as their counterparts in higher social and economic strata. These results, moreover, held across groups with experiences of differing duration in poverty and across racial and ethnic lines (Roach & Gursslin, 1967; Irelan, Moles, & O’Shea, 1969; Coward, Feagin, & Williams, 1974; Davidson & Gaitz, 1974; Abell & Lyon, 1979; Carmon, 1985; Jones & Luo, 1999).
To put the matter another way, this body of research suggests that many of the attitudes that Payne attributes to the poor are also evident to varying degrees among the non-poor, groups that Payne would describe as the “middle class” and the “wealthy.” After all, there is considerable evidence that individuals in these groups have characteristics of the sort that Payne attributes only to the poor: a variable work ethic, inability to save money, and uncertainty in interpersonal relationships. Recent studies indicate that traditional middle-class values on a range of issues have shifted in the past several decades. Divorce, for instance, is now widely seen as acceptable, a broad range of personal behavior is tolerated or accepted, and work judged to be demeaning is often spurned, even in the face of unemployment. (Thornton & Young-DeMarco, 2001; Jaynes, 2000) Mainstream values of the sort Payne holds up as exemplary appear to be considerably less prevalent today than in the past, throughout all segments of the population.
Much of the behavior Payne describes, consequently, is not exclusively a problem of the poor and may therefore reflect values that she incorrectly attributes to poverty. Middle-class or upper-class individuals, of course, are less likely to suffer as a result of such behaviors because, as Payne notes, having monetary resources makes the consequences of such attitudinal or behavioral characteristics considerably less dire. However, a major problem in her interpretation is suggesting that there may be a causal force to these attributes. While they may make it difficult for some to escape poverty under current social and economic conditions, there is little evidence that such traits are especially prevalent among the poor, and they do not explain why some people fall into poverty and others do not. Studies challenging the culture of poverty thesis have cast serious doubt on the proposition that a clearly distinguishable “culture of poverty” in fact exists. By and large, it is a term that has fallen out of use in the social science literature today.
The studies that Payne does reference offer little support for her formulation of “mental models” that distinguish the behavior of the poor. One study she cites a great deal is Susan Mayer’s (1997) book, What Money Can’t Buy. Mayer argues that “. . . activities, possessions and housing environments that are important to children’s outcomes are only moderately related to parental income” (p. 113). In other words, the poor do not lack in resources necessary for children to succeed, and middle-class status is hardly a guarantee of a child’s success. What matters are the “values” of parents, and Mayer (like many other researchers) offers scant evidence that the poor have different values than other groups. On the surface, of course, this point would appear to support Payne’s argument, and it is no doubt for this reason that she cites Mayer’s work. But Mayer’s position is more complicated than this, and directly addresses the question of whether income is related to parenting practices, an issue at the core of Payne’s argument. In examining this matter, Mayer reports that there is negligible difference between the poor and other families. After reviewing the evidence from survey data, she concludes, “These results provide little evidence that parents’ income has a large influence on parenting practices. Nor do the results in this chapter suggest that parental income has a large effect on parents’ psychological attributes other than their feelings of efficacy. And parental efficacy has only a moderate effect on children’s outcomes” (1997, p. 124). By and large, according to Mayer, parenting practices and the values that inform them are generally unrelated to income. This is hardly a finding that provides support for Payne’s framework for understanding poverty, despite her use of Mayer’s book for confirmation of her theories.
Mayer does indicate that “some persistently poor parents are shiftless and neglectful,” adding that their households exhibit “neither the moral nor the material standards that most Americans believe children require” (1997, p. 151). But she also makes it clear that families falling into this category are only a part of the persistently poor, who also suffer from illness, depression, and other limitations quite separate from their moral predilections. This suggests that poor families of the sort that Payne describes as reflecting “generational poverty” represent a modest proportion of the poor, perhaps less than a quarter and probably lower. Given these figures, it stands to reason that the children in such families would be a rather small fraction of all children, possibly just 3 or 4 percent. As Mayer concludes, “poverty alone is not synonymous with incompetence,” and as the number of families living in poverty rises, “the average poor person becomes more like the average middle-class person” (1997, p. 152). This too is an argument in sharp distinction from Payne’s, which suggests that the numbers of attitudinally deviant poor families are increasing (Payne, 2005, p. 61).
Another book Payne cites a number of times is a collection of studies edited by Greg J. Duncan and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn (1997) titled, Consequences of Growing Up Poor. Again, Payne appears to have been rather selective in choosing quotes from this source, as the various studies provide little support for her analysis. In the chapter examining the link between income levels and parenting practices, for instance, Hanson, McLanahan, and Thomson (1997) echo Mayer’s points described above, “We found that household income and debt are only weakly related to effective parenting. Consequently, differences in the levels of parenting do not account for much of the association between economic resources and children’s well being” (p. 219). While the researchers did find evidence that various approaches to parenting had different effects in poor and non-poor households (with control and supervision being less important in the latter), this did not materially affect the relationship between income and children’s outcomes. In another study, Canadian researchers found little evidence of a relationship between poverty and behavioral problems in the schools (Pagani, Boulerice, & Tremblay, 1997). These and similar conclusions throughout the book indicate that the relationship between poverty, the values and behavior of parents, and the welfare of children are a good deal more complicated than Payne suggests.
What is perhaps most problematic about Payne’s framework for understanding poverty is its underlying logic that suggests poor people have choices about whether to remain in—or escape from—poverty. As illustrated in the scenarios described earlier, Payne argues that the poor may not realize they have a choice to live differently, and even if they do recognize their own agency, they may be reluctant to exercise it without the aid of a sponsor who can model the appropriate use of emotional resources. Payne explains that in poverty,
There is a freedom of verbal expression, an appreciation of individual personality, a heightened and intense emotional experience, and a sensual, kinesthetic approach to life usually not found in the middle class or among the educated. These patterns are so intertwined in the daily life of the poor that to have those cut off would be to lose a limb. Many choose not to live a different life. And for some, alcoholism, laziness, lack of motivation, drug addiction, etc., in effect make the choices for the individual. (2005, p. 113)
As a result, Payne indicates that helping poor children develop self control requires both structure and choice so that they can recognize what behaviors are expected of them, identify the consequences accompanying particular actions, and ultimately “emphasize that the individual always has a choice—to follow or not to follow the expected behaviors” (2005, p. 78). Emphasizing that emotional resources are the most important factor in the perpetuation of poverty implies it is the poor themselves who bear the greatest responsibility for their condition, despite the extensive research literature suggesting otherwise. For example, Payne overlooks the predominant social and economic causes of poverty highlighted in social science literature such as deindustrialization, discrimination, unequal educational resources, and socioeconomic segregation (Massey & Denton, 1993; Wilson, 1996). These studies dispel prevalent beliefs that changing individuals’ values and behavior can affect their social mobility, or that children in poor and lower-class households have the same objective opportunities for inter-generational social mobility as children from more affluent families.
Recent research on the state of the very poor in American society suggests that their social environment is considerably more influential than Payne’s book indicates. The Gatreaux project in Chicago, for instance, has demonstrated that moving families out of inner-city communities with highly concentrated poverty can have a significant effect on the life chances of children and adults alike. Once relocated to middle-class neighborhoods, children performed better in school, adults found employment, and family prospects improved. (Kaufman & Rosenbaum, 1992) This research casts considerable doubt on the “mental models” theory that Payne postulates in her book. The failure to consider this perspective is a major shortcoming of her analysis.
Furthermore, although Payne’s reference to individuals in situational and generational poverty does not correspond to data categories on the census and are thus difficult to quantify exactly, the research literature on poverty indicates that the largest group of these children are racial/ethnic minorities (mostly African-American) living in central-city neighborhoods where local employment opportunities are severely restricted. Payne, however, suggests that race is largely unrelated to poverty. In doing so, she sidesteps the critical issue of systematic, historical patterns of discrimination and exploitation that have contributed to the persistence of widespread poverty in the United States. Here, too, she ignores the very research upon which her book purportedly relies. A study cited by Payne reports that African-American families in 1980 were more than seven times more likely to experience “persistent” poverty (more than six years) than Whites. African-Americans also were more likely to live in a neighborhood where more than a fifth of the residents were persistently poor by about the same margin (Brooks-Gunn, Duncan, & Maritato, 1997). Children in these families often live in environments where the effects of “concentrated poverty” are evident, a term employed by William Julius Wilson to describe to describe the impact of deindustrialization and long-term unemployment on inner-city communities (Wilson, 1987, 1996). These statistics tell a different story about the relationship between poverty and race than Payne describes, particularly with respect to the “persistent” poor.
Meaningful efforts to educate poor children and work towards the elimination of poverty in society at large necessitate a commitment to understanding and reforming the existing structure of socioeconomic stratification. This entails a critical analysis of contemporary economic shifts and needs (Books, 2004; Kantor, 1999; Ranney, 1999; Wilson, 1987), as well as attention to the advantageous functioning of the system to particular groups of privileged people (Gans, 1995; Jencks, 1972). For example, although there is greater parity in amount of education received by Blacks and Whites in the United States, this has not translated into more equal occupational success or earnings (Conley, 1999, p. 86). Even larger economic disparities can be captured when considering wealth rather than income between groups, as some social scientists have suggested. Oliver and Shapiro (1997) explain,
Wealth is money that is not typically used to purchase milk, shoes, or other necessities. Sometimes it bails families out of financial and personal crises, but more often it is used to create opportunities, secure a desired stature and standard of living, or pass along a class status already obtained to a new generation. (p. 171)
The measure of one’s wealth—including things such as inheritance, investments, and property—has the “particular attribute of quantifying the social value of ideas or objects” (Conley, 1999, p. 144).
Payne concludes that in conceptualizing poverty,
Naming the problem is the first step toward a solution, and the most important step, for if the problem is not named accurately the course of action based on that faulty assumption will only lead further and further from a solution. So naming problems accurately—making the correct diagnosis—is crucial because it is on those definitions that the theories of change and program activities are based. (2005, p. 169)
Yet, Payne’s own viewpoint is largely unsubstantiated in current research literature. Through a detailed analysis of the descriptive scenarios Payne provides to accompany her framework for understanding poverty, it is clear that the poor are portrayed rather monolithically in their values and behaviors, which generally correspond to the culture of poverty thesis of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In like fashion, then, Payne recommends that educators serve to inspire and model change so the poor know there is a more desirable way of living. If only the problem of poverty could be so simply diagnosed, then the remedy would be fairly straightforward. Yet Payne’s work may misinform well-intentioned efforts to educate poor children by locating the problem of poverty within the individual without regard to the larger social context in which they live and are expected to succeed.
The Payne phenomenon in perspective
Given the issues identified above, the influence of Dr. Ruby Payne presents something of a puzzle. If her viewpoint is so heavily tilted toward a certain perspective and the research base for her work is so questionable, what explains the popularity of her book and the apparent success of her workshops? As suggested above, the clarity of her explanation for poverty and related issues, along with the confident tone of her narratives and recommendations, may explain part of the appeal. The fact that she purports to draw upon decades of academic research no doubt lends credibility to her enterprise and its publications. But it is also possible that a good deal of the interest her perspective draws from educators is rooted in their own middle-class conceptions about the poor and the causes of poverty. Most educators, after all, are unfamiliar with the extensive research literature on poverty and its effects on children, and if Payne’s citations seem to support their own views about the poor, they would hardly be in a position to challenge the interpretation of research that Payne offers. If they are predisposed to believing that the poor are lazy and impulsive as well as unreliable and temperamental, they are more likely to agree with Payne’s analysis than to question it. In short, Payne may be popular simply because she echoes commonplace assumptions about why some individuals appear to succeed in American society while others do not.
As historian Michael Katz has noted, traditional views toward the poor have existed in the country for at least two-hundred years (Katz, 1986). In the past, observers of the poor distinguished between those considered “worthy” and “unworthy.” The difference was typically linked to personal rectitude, much like the distinctions that Payne notes in separating “situational” from “generational” poverty. Her “mental models” conceptual framework and the scenarios she describes echo the ideas of middle-class welfare reformers from the past, for whom poverty was more a moral condition than a matter of economic status. Now, as then, children are depicted as victims of the problematic attitudes and behaviors their parents exhibit and deemed highly susceptible to inheriting the same dysfunctional worldviews. While this may elicit sympathy and concern for students who live in poverty, and perhaps cause teachers to devote more time and attention to their needs, it is unlikely to create a sound, research-based comprehension of the problems presented by poverty and the best ways to address them. Because of this, it seems unlikely that Payne’s framework will lead to meaningful, long-term change in the circumstances of poor children’s lives and the ability of schools to work with them.
Ultimately, it is necessary to consider whether the apparent success of Ruby Payne and her organization represents a failure on the part of teacher educators and the many social science researchers who have addressed the connections between poverty and schooling over the past several decades. After all, if thousands of professional educators have been misinformed to one extent or another by Payne’s analytical framework, it is at least partly because the training they received in colleges and universities did not prepare them to critically assess its problems. If teachers and principals lack an understanding about how poverty and social class affect children’s education, it may be because their own professional education provided little information or theory for them to draw upon for this purpose. At the same time, researchers focusing on these issues have not contributed to the development of successful in-service education programs that acknowledge the realities and needs of teachers and other education professionals in the classroom. Ruby Payne has thus filled a critical vacuum in the field. This, too, explains some of her success. Where others have been uninterested or perhaps unable to help teachers understand just how poverty and education are related, Payne and her collaborators have been quite willing to step into the breach.
Perhaps it is time for the research and teacher education community to take up the challenge of poverty and begin to engage the questions that Ruby Payne has addressed so actively for the past decade or so. This is not an easy undertaking since the links between poverty and schooling are far from fully understood. As a number of studies have noted, the particular mechanisms that account for why some individuals and families end up in poverty and remain there for any length of time are still poorly comprehended (Sawhill, 1988). Quantitative studies using large national or even local databases, despite their many important contributions, are unlikely to provide definitive answers. As the authors of a chapter on “intergenerational transmission of poverty” in the Duncan and Brooks-Gunn volume note, “While we know that growing up poor reduces children’s economic mobility, these analyses tell us little about why” (Corcoran & Adams, 1997, p. 514). In their concluding chapter, Duncan and Brooks-Gunn refer to the absence of strong relationships between parental income and school performance in quantitative studies as an “enigma” (Duncan & Brooks-Gunn, 1997, p. 603). More fine-grained analyses of the effect of schooling and development of children living in poverty are needed before answers to these questions can be generated.
While teachers and schools do have an important role in addressing issues of educational opportunity and equity for poor children, much additional research will be necessary before effective programs of professional assistance for them can or should be undertaken. Ruby Payne’s program, while doubtless well intentioned, is not based on a sound or thorough understanding of poverty and its causes. However, if her efforts to address the difficulties educators face in working with poor children generates increased research attention and a resolution to better connect researchers’ findings with educators’ instructional concerns, then perhaps her work will turn out to have been significant indeed.
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