Editor's note: Ruby Payne will be speaking at a two-day event sponsored by Grace & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, 8 N. Laurel St., Richmond, on Feb. 5 and 6. For registration and more information, go to ghtc.org.
In her repertoire of stories, and Ruby Payne has a vast repertoire of stories, is the one that launches her from a local educator to a national brand, from a school administrator with insights for middle-class teachers struggling to teach low-income children to a sought-after consultant whom some hail as a champion of hope and empathy, and others excoriate as a shallow purveyor of damaging stereotypes.
The story begins thusly:
It is the early 1990s, Payne is living in Texas, where she still lives, working in a school district as a director of professional development. The assistant principal of a school that had undergone rapid transition from a mostly middle-class student body to a mostly poor one came to her looking for a solution to the high rate of student discipline referrals. The assistant principal then tells a story of a situation that baffles her.
“ ‘I’ve got a set of twins in the building,’ ” Payne recalls her saying, “ ‘and they have two sets of clothing. They wear one one day and the other the next. So, I said, before the holidays, ‘If I give you $200 for clothing would you accept it?’ Their mom said yes, and then they came back after the holiday with the same clothes. I asked them what did their mom do with the money, and they said, ‘She bought a DVD player.’ ”
Payne says to the principal: “ 'If I was the mother, I would have done the same thing.’ I said, ‘Poverty is painful and one of the things you spend money on when you’re poor is entertainment to take away the pain. Did she ask you for clothing?’ No.’ ” Payne then asks the principal what she’d do if someone gave her a $1.4 million Picasso. Sell it, right? But a wealthy person would collect it. A kid living in poverty might laugh while being disciplined, Payne says she went on to explain. But in the environment in which the student was raised, laughter may be the primary way he or she knows how to save face and de-escalate a conflict.
Hidden rules, the unspoken behaviors and expectations of the poor, middle-class and wealthy, form the heart of the book that made Payne a sensation. She published “A Framework for Understanding Poverty” in 1995 and updated it in 2007, in part as a response to her critics who decry its generalizations and sweeping conclusions. The slender volume is both practical —schools need to develop schedules that allow students and teachers to build relationships, because relationships matter more than almost anything else to those in poverty — and vaguely anthropological — “The mother is always at the center (of the family), though she may have multiple sexual relationships.” This is not because the mother is promiscuous, Payne tells me. It's because she is the one who must provide resources to the family. "It's not about sex, it's about resources."
The bottom line, Payne says, is that children who live in generational poverty — the sons and daughters of the sons and daughters of the poor — grew up with particular unarticulated rules that allow them to survive in the face of relentless deprivation. But we live in a world that operates by middle-class rules, Payne argues, and those rules need to be spelled out to students – how to speak, how to disagree, how to plan, etc. — to move ahead. Not to change their culture, she emphasizes, but to give them choices they otherwise may not have. Teachers must understand how students are shaped by environments that may lack not just money, but also support systems, role models and physical, mental and spiritual health.
We had a long conversation about her work and what she wants Richmond to take away from it. I’ve edited for length and clarity. We started with the controversy she stirs, and the critics who say she understates the role of structural and systemic discrimination, disinvestment and deprivation.
RP: One of the reasons we haven’t solved the problem of poverty is because there is no consensus on causation … and there are four distinct research bases: the behavior of the individual; the absence of human and social capital, which boils down to jobs and the capacity to do jobs; exploitation and predation, which is racism, sexism, classism; and the last one is political and economic structure, when banks red-line neighborhoods, for example. Here’s the problem in a nutshell: If you are on the political right, you think it’s the first two. It’s about individual choices and jobs. If you are on the left, you think it’s the last two. So, what we see in communities is that people start arguing about causation and it separates a community.
The business people will say, "Ruby, we just need more jobs and people to do those jobs." If my audience is conservative, people will say, "If they just made better choices." In Florida, a woman told me, "You cannot address poverty, until you address racism." And when I’m with economists, they say, "This is all about systems." The fights are tremendous.
TG: So which were you thinking when you wrote “A Framework?”
RP: I was only talking about individual issues because that’s all teachers are dealing with in the classroom. The teacher is not there to solve racism and sexism and predation. Now, a teacher can be racist, and you can deal with that, but if you want higher achievement out of these kids, you need to know how they think first.
TG: In the time since you first published your book, we’ve seen much greater acknowledgement of the structural causes of poverty.
TG: So, you’re operating against that framework.
RP: Yes. Let me say something in a larger frame. One of the things that has happened to exacerbate this poverty problem is that when we were an agrarian society, you didn’t have to go to school to make a living and we represented wealth with a deed. When we became an industrial society, you didn’t have to go to school to make a living and the way we represented that was with a stock certificate. Now, we have a knowledge-based economy and a service economy, and in the knowledge-based economy, if you want to make money you have to go to school, and how do we represent intellectual capital? Patents? Copyrights? The closest thing we have is a college degree. Knowledge has become a form of privilege and you cannot negotiate an economy without it. So, what I will say in Richmond is that we have communities that are not building the infrastructure to move people to a knowledge-based economy. We have the infrastructure for safety nets, but the only infrastructure we have to help people transition to the knowledge-based economy are the schools, and it’s not working. So, we have communities that are basically deeply, deeply segregated between the haves and the have-nots and there’s not an infrastructure between the two places that works.
TG: Public transportation, neighborhood investment …
RP: We say to communities, you have a great infrastructure for getting by, but not for getting ahead.
TG: About 40 percent of Richmond’s children live in poverty and it has a pretty ambitious anti-poverty plan to address some of the larger structural issues, the long-term, so public transportation, and the shorter – job training, wrap-around services, so where does what you say fit into the mix?
RP: We say if you really want to move the needle in your community, you need to do three things: You have to educate those who have resources about the reality of being under-resourced; you have to provide the under-resourced with the knowledge bases they have been denied access to for any of the four reasons we talked about, and then you have to invite people from poverty to the decision-making table, if you’re going to have really good, strong communities.
TG: And how do you build the understanding of what it’s like to live in poverty?
RP: You can’t be judgmental. I say, "These are the realities." They are the hidden rules, and — could you put this is all caps? — poverty is an environmental condition. The bottom line is that environments create the thinking that people use to survive … So, yes, you have to address all four causes of poverty. I applaud the city for going after it systemically, but there are other pieces … I had a man in Colorado say to me, "Why should I care?" I said to him, "My first question is ‘Do you want your real estate values to stay stable and number two, do you want your children to be able to come back here and find jobs?’ " … Someone said to me, "The Bible says we will always have poverty." Yes, we will. That’s not the question. The real question is, "What percent of poverty can your community afford?" That’s the real question.