A Framework for Understanding Poverty

Book Review by Laurie Burgess

Ruby K. Payne, Ph. D., is a leading expert on the mindsets of socioeconomic classes and poverty education.  She is a speaker, business owner, educator, author, and founder and CEO of aha! Process, Inc.  She is also the creator of the Crossing the Tracks series.  Her research and scholarship on poverty has guided educators, church leaders, and professionals in their work among classes, particularly the poor.

The purpose of A Framework for Understanding Poverty, as its title implies, is to support readers’ understanding of socioeconomic classes, especially poverty.  More specifically, “the focus is on solutions, shared responsibilities, new insights, and interdependence”(p. iii, Payne 2005) across classes.  Based on Payne’s additive model, A Framework for Understanding Poverty provides a foundation for understanding the hidden rules of poverty, middle class, and wealth, and offers strategies to address the impact of poverty on people’s lives. 

Statistics, charts, and case studies throughout A Framework for Understanding Poverty support and validate Payne’s thesis.  The introduction, for example, includes startling statistics about poverty that lay the framework for the purpose of the book.  In another section, Payne includes a case study that supports her account on family patterns in generational poverty. She explains that the family diagram of a middle class family has a linear pattern; therefore, the lineage is traceable.  In a diagram of a family from generational poverty, however, the mother is the center of the organization and the family members are outshoots from that center. Visually these diagrams reveal a stark contrast from each other. In the last chapter, Payne drives the point that in order to support individuals in poverty we must understand rather than judge.  The pages that follow include disconcerting statistics from the U.S. Bureau of the Census about income level and income in relation to educational attainment.  These statistics make a convincing argument that not only is poverty prevalent in the United States, but individuals who are not in poverty have a responsibility to support and act on behalf of those in need. 

As college education continues to be more accessible across socioeconomic classes, colleges and universities are increasingly more diverse. A Framework for Understanding Poverty provides educators and leaders in higher education with ideas and guidance to improve their effectiveness with individuals from all socioeconomic backgrounds.  Payne suggests that creating relationships with students in poverty is a key element to student achievement.  “Because poverty is about relationships as well as entertainment, the most significant motivator for these students is relationships”(p. 109, Payne 2005). She goes on to define a successful relationship as a relationship that honors and respects students and then provides specific ways educators and institutions can create these relationships. 

A Framework for Understanding Poverty, when first published in 1996, offered a novel approach to understanding poverty and the mindsets of socioeconomic classes.  Since then, Payne’s book has informed and guided educators and leaders in their work and relationships with individuals in poverty.  Payne’s research and work has also influenced and contributed to the educational community.  Other scholars and researchers such as P.C. Gorski and E. Brantlinger have furthered Payne’s work through their research and publications.

Although I agree that A Framework for Understanding Poverty has considerable merit and usefulness, my concern is that Payne’s ideas reinforce stereotypes among classes.  The scenarios included in chapter one, for example, include characters who are African-American or Latino.  This may reinforce stereotypes regarding ethnicity rather than class based on socioeconomic level.  Overall, however, Payne provides a compelling argument that educators have an important role in the lives of individuals in poverty by creating relationships, supporting decision-making and problem-solving, and sharing responsibilities and respect.  A Framework for Understanding Poverty is a must-read for any educator who works with students in poverty.

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