Ruby Payne's Framework For Preserving Poverty

by Don Berg, Founder
Attitutor Services

The irony of Ruby Payne's book A Framework for Understanding Poverty is that it exhibits two of the same deficits that it assigns to people in generational poverty.

People in generational poverty and this book both have a survival orientation and they live in the moment such that they do not consider the future ramifications of their actions.


Survival Orientation to Poverty

The book is most obviously framed in the survival orientation by Chapter 3's "Little Quiz" which posits the questions, "Could you survive in poverty?" "Could you survive in middle class?" and "Could you survive in wealth?"

These questions are meant to reveal certain "hidden rules" of each class, but the absurdity of asking about your ability to "survive" the abundance of middle and upper class existence suggests that there is something else going on.

When I reflect on the fact that she is an accomplished school person (former teacher, principal, and district administrator) talking to teachers who are working "in the trenches," so to speak, then I think she must be reinforcing their image of themselves as embattled heroes fighting the valiant fight against the impersonal forces of poverty in their student's lives.

When you are fighting a losing battle and someone comes along with a promising new weapon then you easily accept the implicit assumption that your first priority is to survive.


The introduction laid the groundwork for the survival frame by ending with 11 factoids and a table of numbers that establish poverty as an abstract and overwhelming problem in sharp contrast to her personal story of how "an assistant principal, Judy Duncan, came to" her and encouraged her to share her special insights into poverty. She tells about the personal details of her life that gave her this special insight.

She says she "had been gathering data for 24 years."

The problem is that she was cobbling together ideas, not gathering data.

According to critic Paul Gorski in his review for EdChange.org she has thoroughly ignored the real data that has been gathered on poverty and studied by professionals who specialize in understanding poverty.

The entire book finishes with a one page conclusion and a set of 6 full page tables that further reinforce the abstract and overwhelming nature of poverty.

The presentation is effectively bracketed by impersonal poverty statistics that reinforce the overwhelming nature of the problem.


In fact, Ruby Payne does not really understand poverty.

In an article for the Teacher's College Record entitled Miseducating Teachers about the Poor: A Critical Analysis of Ruby Payne's Claims about Poverty Randy Bomer, Joel E. Dworin, Laura May & Peggy Semingson examined her claims about poverty and found that when compared to the scientific literature on poverty her claims and characterizations about poverty are wrong.

"We found that her truth claims, offered without any supporting evidence, are contradicted by anthropological, sociological and other research on poverty."

Unfortunately, using her ideas is like trying to treat cholera with a garland of garlic cloves, it does nothing to help and (perhaps inadvertently) contributes to the disease by misleading you about what really causes it.


In her scathing review entitled A Framework for Understanding Ruby Payne Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction for Illinois State University Anita Bohn points out that,

"well-established research has demonstrated that all children benefit from the strategies she suggests in her workshops. Payne is not wrong to promote them, but she did not invent them and deserves neither the credit nor the financial remuneration she receives for suggesting common instructional practices to help low-income children."


Living in the Moment of Poverty

The other characteristic of generational poverty that Ruby Payne attributes to people in generational poverty is that they live in the moment and do not consider future ramifications (p.69).

All of Payne's critics are greatly disturbed by this aspect of her approach.

Despite the misleading title Payne does not appear to understand poverty.

She understands how the symptoms of poverty scare the hell out of middle class teachers and maybe she knows how to get them through the day.

Mainly she knows how to milk the system for her own profit by feeding those fears with information that reinforces their stereotypes and bias.

She does not know or understand the causes of poverty and makes no claim to being able to truly alleviate it.

Her entire approach is summed up as teaching poor kids how to act middle class so they can "choose" to be middle class.

There might be some redeeming value in learning to act middle class, but that does not reflect an understanding of poverty.


Her background as a teacher, principal, and school administrator grounded her in the trenches of the day-to-day struggles of teachers.

But she fails to see how that grounding in the daily struggle without reference to the actual scientific data and analysis of the causes of poverty makes her a lot of money at the expense of the children she is helping the teachers deal with.

By further entrenching the stereotypes and intuitive misinformation about poverty (that there is a personal choice in the matter, for instance) she reinforces the cycle of poverty and the social systems that force families and children to live in poverty.

Applying her approach is going to contribute to the perpetuation of poverty, not relieve it.


Her main sales trick is to reinforce the impersonal fear of poverty via overwhelming statistics and then provides very personal concrete specific solutions presented in conjunction with scientific sounding terminology.

She induces the fear of poverty so that she can then tell teachers exactly what they should have learned in teacher's college.


It's a con similar to the laundry balls that were sold some years ago.

The idea was that if you put these plastic containers with ceramic beads inside them you could reduce or eliminate laundry detergent.

When the beads disappeared you replace them.

They claimed that the beads created an ionization effect or some kind of reduction of surface tension, or something equally impressive sounding.

The truth was that the laundry balls did nothing.

Of course, people's laundry came out pretty clean anyway, but that is because the majority of the cleaning effect of laundering clothes is a mechanical process not a chemical one.

Ruby Payne is selling laundry balls to teachers.

The substance of what she is teaching is the same stuff teachers should have already learned and the framing of it in terms of poverty is a disservice to the impoverished and society since it is perpetuating disproven myths about poor people and the causes of poverty.

A Framework for Understanding Poverty is a smoke and mirrors magical thinking sales pitch, not reality-based scientifically validated understanding.


P.S. One example of Ruby Payne's charlatanry: Her treatment of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is limited to the claim that there is a relationship between eye movements, spoken predicates, and internal imagery.

There may be some good and useful aspects of NLP, but that is not one of them. There is "no support for the proposed relationship between eye movements, spoken predicates, and internal imagery."

Citation: Elich, M., Thompson, R. W., & Miller, L. (1985). Mental imagery as revealed by eye movements and spoken predicates: A test of neurolinguistic programming. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 32(4), 622-625. p.625. Quoted on Wikipedia.org NLP and Science page.

References:

A Framework for Understanding Ruby Payne by Anita Perna Bohn

Savage Unrealities by Paul Gorski

Miseducating Teachers about the Poor: A Critical Analysis of Ruby Payne's Claims about Poverty by Randy Bomer, Joel E. Dworin, Laura May & Peggy Semingson



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