A Framework for Understanding Poverty
By Ruby K. Payne, PH.D.
That is the title of one of my required text books for a reading foundation class I have next semester. It’s not a long book only about 175 pages—pretty short for most text book, and on flipping through the pages I see that quite a few “check lists” and bulleted statements. A seemingly large portion of the book reads more like a PowerPoint presentation than a college level text. In fact a sub heading on the cover list it as “A Must-Read For Educators, Employers, PolicyMakers, and Service Providers” so I get the impression this is not an academic level text—which over all is not necessarily a bad thing. Wisdom can be found in many unlikely places—even a lay persons PowerPoint like book may prove useful. Or so I thought.
I was also a bit amused by the addition to the author’s name: Ruby K. Payne, PH.D. “The Leading U.S. Expert on the Mindset of Poverty, Middle Class, and Wealth.” The Leading Expert? Since when? What university is she teaching at and doing research for that will allow her to be the self appointed “Leading U.S. Expert”? The answer—none! Indeed to quote her, “Where had I gotten the data? First of all, I was married more than 30 years to Frank, who grew up in poverty because his father died when he was 6. Though it was situational poverty, he lived for several years with those who were in generational poverty. ….” She also uses her claim of gathering data for 24 years of teaching/working in the public school system. But what was her method of gathering data? Apparently her “gathering data” is nothing more than collecting her own and other’s anecdotal memories and recollections of events. Which as any good researcher knows is worthless without some sort of statistical data to back it up with. What is also worse is her claim that being married to someone who is poor—which means 2nd hand information—is enough to make her a leading expert.
This using anecdotal memories as evidence is considered worthless by researchers because it is highly susceptible to bias. For example, the writer believes that on the whole poor peoples’ homes and apartment are dirty and unkempt. (This is an actual claim by Dr. Payne on page53 and 80.) How does she prove this? Does she prove this claim with statistical research by first defining what is “dirty and unkempt” and then collecting unbiased survey of how many poor people fall into this category as opposed to non-poor people whose homes may or may not also fall into the “dirty and unkempt” category; while also comparing those numbers to that of poor/middle class people whose home are “clean and well kept”? This would be somewhat acceptable evidence—but no, she offers no actual research to back up her claim that those living in poverty have dirty and unkempt houses other than she says so and the ideal that those living in poverty may not be able to afford organizing devices! You may say to yourself that this sort of claim is more like a stereotype than an actual representation of a person in poverty; and you would be right. This so called framework is made of nothing more than negative stereotypes reinforced by anecdotal accounts.
Who would publish such drivel and claim it is research? What textbook publisher would stoop so low? None apparently, for the book is self-published by the author herself. This means that her work is not peer reviewed nor is any of her research documented. But why is it so popular that it sells well enough that colleges around the U.S. adopt it for a text? Because it highlights a very popular “hidden truth” about the middle class—it tells them what they want to hear. All these negative traits that the author assigns to the poor, i.e. alcoholism, the inability to use proper grammar, disorganize, aggression, the inability to solve problems are not also assigned to the middle class and wealthy. Of course these problems exist across all class lines but the author ignores this and builds on the idea that if we can just fix poor people, make the cleaner, more organized and teach them proper grammar and give them good role models; well then everything will be okay.
Never mind this is working from the deficit model (for those of you not familiar with “teacher lingo” this means to identify what the student lacks and provide it; i.e. the student lacks basic grammar, so the teacher will explicitly teach grammar.) While there is nothing inherently wrong with using the deficit model as long as it is used in conjunction with the student’s strengths. This is what this book is seriously lacking. Almost all of the “traits” the author lists as characteristic of the poor are negative. About the only positive trait she includes is “…will work hard if they like you.”(p. 58) Even then this is a dubious positive—never mind the fact that this sort of characteristic could be said of any student regardless of social economic status. The whole book is condescending and patronizing. She goes so far as to make the claim that many poor people are poor because they don’t know they have a choice not to be poor!
Furthermore this author presents claims made by the self stylized physiotherapists, Bandler and Grinder, as scientific fact. After doing a bit of research on theses so called physiologist experts I find they have very little respect in the physiological or scientific field and most respected physiologists consider them no more than “New Age” con men. This particular pair of researchers that Dr. Payne is so enamored of has yet to present any empirical research to back up their work.
This book being required reading for an upcoming class just horrifies me. How can any college professor worth their doctorate not see that this book is nothing more than half truths and stereotypes parading about as real research. Personally I think books like this are dangerous because they perpetuates the myth that the poor are that way because they do not know any other way, and that to solve this problem all we have to do is give them good role models. There is this Pygmalion like undertone to the whole book that states that one of the biggest problems among the poor is that they do not know the formal registrar of language and therefore must be taught it. While I am all for teaching formal language I by no means feel that it will solve any real problem. What good is the formal registrar if there are no jobs to apply for? Or when college is so expensive that one cannot afford it? And what about the growing numbers of college educated poor—the problem many people are facing: The middle class jobs and well paying blue collar jobs are drying up while the cost of living is sky rocketing. That’s the problem.
But oh well. I digress. I’m sorry for those of you who have made it through my little rant. I just needed to get that off my brain. I’m hoping that the professor who assigned this book will not use it much.