Monday, February 25, 2013

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

 A few weeks ago, I went to a seminar taught by a woman who has, for the last thirteen years, been in charge of an organization which coordinates the efforts of over four thousand volunteers who help people who are suffering from poverty, usually of the temporary situational type, but sometimes generational. A couple of books were mentioned in the talk. The first one was When Helping Hurts, which I reviewed earlier, and the other one was Dr. Payne's book. I immediately put them on hold at the local library, and both of them have proven thought-provoking, at the very least.

The book is definitely designed for the benefit of educators, and the latter two thirds focus on effective strategies for teaching the children of generational poverty. Payne defines poverty as "the extent to which an individual does without resources." Contrary to the narrow view most of us have of poverty, she attributes continuing poverty not merely to lack of financial resources, but perhaps more importantly to a lack of emotional, mental, spiritual, physical, support systems, relationships, and the hidden rules which govern behavior and interactions within a class of citizens.

In fact, that was the chart that intrigued me enough to put this book on my list in the first place, the "hidden rules" of the poor, the middle class, and the wealthy. Without the types of resources mentioned above, and an understanding of the hidden rules, Payne asserts, it is extraordinarily difficult to move upward in financial class.

For example, for the poor, their possessions are people, for the middle class; things, for the wealthy; one-of a kind objects or legacies. For the poor, money is to used and spent, for the middle class; managed, and for the wealthy conserved and invested. When it comes to food, for the poor, the key question is "Did you get enough?", for the middle class, is "Did you like it?" and for the wealthy, "Was it presented well?" With respect to time, for the poor the present is the most important and decisions are made for the moment based on feelings or survival. For the middle class, the future is most important and decisions are made based on future consequences. For the wealthy, traditions and history are most important, and decisions are often made on the basis of tradition and decorum.

Payne also talks quite a bit about the role of language and story for the classes. A 1967 study (Joos) found that every language has five registers: frozen, formal, consultative, casual and intimate. Failure to use the appropriate register in conversation can have consequences. In school, and in employment situations, the register most commonly used is formal register. People who come from generational poverty do not have a background in formal register; the majority of their interactions with others of their class takes place in casual register, so they are at a disadvantage compared to the middle or wealthy class, who use formal register in their everyday interactions frequently. One's everyday interactions are called "primary discourse", while interactions with society at large are called, "secondary discourse". Students have been shown to do much better in school when their primary and secondary discourse methods are the same. (I've vastly simplified a complicated chapter).
Another factor that's missing in generational poverty is robust support systems.

"When a child has homework, who in the support system knows enough math to help the child? Who knows the research process? Who knows the ropes for going to college or getting a new car loan? Who knows how to talk to the insurance agent so the situation can be clarified? Who knows how to negotiate difficult situations with a teacher and come to a resolution? Who understands the court system, the school system? Information and know-how are crucial to success."

Payne evidently is fond of Steven Covey's Seven Habits work, as she quotes him a few times in the book, in the midst of some heavy-duty academic papers.

She also mentions something a couple of times that I found interesting. The role of discipline in households afflicted by generational poverty is completely at odds with that of the middle class. In generational poverty, "punishment is not about change, it is about penance and forgiveness. Individuals in poverty usually have a strong belief in fate and destiny. Therefore, to expect changed behavior after a parent-teacher conference is, in most cases, a false hope." From my perspective, middle class discipline is all about changing behavior, teaching action and reaction, cause and consequence. If you do A, B happens. If you don't like B, don't do A. (Or, don't get caught)

In her conclusion, Payne says,

"Yet another notion among the middle class and educated is that if the poor had a choice, they would live differently. The financial resources would certainly help make a difference. Even with the financial resources, however, no every individual who received those finances would choose to live differently. 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."

Strong stuff.

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