Thursday, January 18, 2018
Opinion

The mind-set of the poor

Why are some people stuck in poverty? Dr. Ruby Payne will let you in on the secret.

Payne is a poverty doc, or more aptly, a get-out-of-poverty doc. With a Ph.D. in educational leadership she writes prescriptions for addressing the scourge of poverty wielded by public school systems, social service agencies and the corporate world. Her analysis is insightful and her advice practical, and it doesn't hurt that Payne has a delightful manner that helps her bulldoze through the sensitive subjects of poverty, race, gender and class without ruffling feathers.

Speaking Wednesday at Tropicana Field at the invitation of an array of area civic and community groups and corporate sponsors including the Junior League, United Way, Bank of America, Starting Right, Now and the Tampa Bay Rays, Payne explained the hidden rules of poverty.

Payne says that people are poor due to their own behaviors and lack of education — a rationale that appeals to political conservatives. She thinks that political and economic structures keep people in poverty, even if they are hard-working, and that poor people are easily exploited — ideas to which liberals nod their heads. All of it conspires to strip people in generational poverty of the stabilizing personal, economic and cultural resources they need to make it into the middle class.

Makes sense to me. Now what?

Have you ever driven by a beaten-up trailer and seen a new satellite dish outside? Payne asks the audience. Do you know kids who qualify for free or reduced lunch but manage to have a dollar or two a day to spend on ice cream?

She says that people who can't understand these behaviors or are infuriated by them don't understand the hidden rules poor people live by. For someone in generational poverty it makes perfect sense to spend whatever money one possesses on a satellite dish or delicious ice cream. "Poverty is very painful," Payne says, "and money is used for entertainment to take away the pain."

Unlike people in the middle class who are driven by "work, achievement and material security," people in poverty are simply trying to get by day after day. The two chief drivers for the poor are entertainment and relationships, according to Payne. Entertainment is an escape from poverty's relentless tyranny. And relationships substitute for money as a survival strategy. When a middle-class person's car breaks down they call AAA, Payne quips. When it happens to someone in poverty, they call Uncle Ray.

Only by understanding this mind-set will teachers, social workers and employers succeed in connecting with people from generational poverty. As an example, Payne says that unless teachers are aware of how relationships have paramount value for an at-risk child, they won't understand the need to create a trusting, mutually respectful connection with him or her. Otherwise the child will refuse to learn.

Payne came to be an expert on poverty almost by accident. She was working for a public school district in Baytown, Texas, when discipline problems spiked in a school that went from 24 percent low-income to 60 percent in three years. Her analysis of what was going on and why became the focus of Payne's seminal book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty.

I agree with much of her analysis, including her claim that simply having more money won't change the culture of the poor — lottery winners prove that. But I think Payne underplays the benefits of a living wage and how transformational that can be.

It's exhausting to be poor. You may have to work more than one job, use spotty public transit and rely on undependable child care arrangements. Children of the poor are often thrust into the role of taking care of younger siblings or shouldering other adult duties. Had the United States not suffered such an erosion of wage levels for low-skill workers, where someone can work full-time yet still be in poverty, there would be far less stress and social pathology.

Payne's work is undeniably needed. Making every job in America a good job by raising the minimum wage to a living wage is needed more.

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