On Poverty

**This will be my attempt at one of those writings where I just sit down and write. Start to finish, no breaks, minimal proof reading. I’ve seen it done before and I hope that it won’t ramble or repeat myself too much.**

Our school didn’t do so well on the latest round of state testing. Specifically, we struggled on the poverty subgroup. I guess we don’t get poor kids. So this summer we were given a book to read, A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby K. Payne. There is a ton of criticism of this book, much of it deserved. I personally found it to be rather simplistic. The graphics are basic and not really enlightening, but maybe I was suspecting too much. The author has a Ph.D and the book claims to be research based. However, it relies heavily on patterns that teachers might notice about their students from different classes.

Did I say patterns? I really meant stereotypes.

The premise of the book rests on the idea that there is a shared culture among classes that supersedes ethnicity, gender, or nationality. For example, the book wants us to believe that the poor are loud, that the poor lack long-term planning, and lack proper social cues. It is even complete with a made up case studies of what might happen. Oh, and for an author that has a Ph.D, the notes are trash. The notes are’t so much citations of sources as they are a list of stuff she read. Kind of like the links in a blog post.

And there was another, more personal reason that I didn’t like the book. There is a connection between behavior and culture. When Ruby Payne connects poverty to culture, she is in essence saying that the behavior of people leads to poverty. If you come from a loud family that has a big screen TV you must be poor. If you value a relationship more than achievement, you must be poor. If you lack social tact, you must be poor. But I grew up in poverty, and I couldn’t relate to what she was writing. Don’t get me wrong, there were struggles. I have been employed since the 5th grade (paper routes, Burger King, YMCA, Burger King again, hotel house keeping, Target, teaching). I remember the subtle pressures and jealousy felt as my peers would take vacations, shopping trips, or attend camps I couldn’t. I remember what it would be like to not have a parent home at night because they were at work, and I’m not talking about an on-call doctor. I remember being worried about if we were going to lose our house. When my behavioral experience doesn’t match Ruby Payne’s description it’s like my experience in poverty has been disingenuous. If Ruby Payne had me as a child in class she might acknowledge that my family was poor, but I wasn’t in poverty.

That strikes at the biggest problem with Ruby Payne’s thinking. Being poor is just having a lack of money. That’s easy for society to fix. But the term poverty carries much more baggage (drugs, poor housing, low intelligence, etc.) than the term poverty. Being poor is a paper cut that requires a band-aid. Being in poverty is having a disease that must be eradicated. When Ruby Payne equates that loud, rambunctious student with poverty, we teachers look to cure the disease. That is dangerous. That is the type of thinking that will lead to racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and nearly every other kind of discrimination possible.

Okay, so I disliked the book, but I waited to write this post unit we had the in-person workshop with the presenter from Aha! Process. The presenter was much better than the book. By focusing on the lack of exposure people from poverty might have, he made poverty a experiential problem and not a behavioral problem. My growing up in poverty wasn’t based upon behavior, but was due to a lack of experience on the part of my parents. Even though I would say that I have moved from poverty to decidedly middle class, or lower middle class, there are still experiences that might have benefited me that I will never know about or have to learn myself.

While the presenter did fall into the trap of stereotyping occasionally, I felt that he did an exceptional job of maintaining the focus on experiences. What he was trying to get across was empathy. Our students come to us from many different backgrounds, and while some will have had the same experiences and then have similar mindsets and paradigms for interpreting the world, others might not. As teachers we need to make our expectations abundantly clear, especially for those little things we might take for granted. Most of our students aren’t trying to do wrong by us, and we need to not only understand that, but acknowledge that.

And if we can accept that as a maxim, those little things really aren’t differences after all.

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One thought on “On Poverty

  1. Ruby Payne is all the rage among some well intended nice people I’ve known. Having grown up in the projects all I can say is I don’t agree with her at all. She’s not speaking my truth.

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