Ruby was in town

by Jim Jacobs

The Zephyr, Galesburg


Sometimes the petite blond from Texas leaned across the podium in front of Hegg Auditorium like she was chatting with an old friend; other times gesturing to emphasize a point, sprinkling serious talk with humorous anecdotes, occasionally checking her watch because she had a plane to catch.

Dr. Ruby Payne was in Galesburg last week. She came to town to tell local educators how to understand poor kids.

Payne is the self-appointed expert on schools and poor children, and because I taught 35 years at a school that has lots of boys and girls who live in poverty, I was eager to hear what she had to say. Thanks to an invitation from Sharon Gonzalez, Galesburg High School Assistant Principal, I got the chance.

For over a decade, Payne has crisscrossed the world giving lectures like the one she gave here – at hefty prices. Joel Estes, District 205 Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, kindly got me an interview with Payne a few minutes before she spoke. She was approachable and forthcoming, admitting she averages $17,000 for a full day's work, although she said: "Sometimes I do it for nothing. I believe you should give back." Reportedly, Payne was generous to 205.

Fact is, Dr. Payne has created a poverty industry. Centered in Highlands, TX, aha! Process, Inc. includes a publishing company, training center, and a staff of 25, all dedicated to her theory about poor kids and why they're such a "problem." Her theory goes something like this: Middle class people and poor people don't understand each other, but poor people need to learn how to act middle class; therefore, teachers need to instruct poor kids in middle class ways.

If I sound skeptical, it's because I am. Frankly, it's a stretch to believe that a person who rakes in seventeen grand a day, 150 days a year, understands what it's like to go to bed hungry or be set out on the curb because you can't find a job to pay rent.

A good friend who teaches at GHS chided me for my skepticism. Teachers need to understand that many students come from poverty, I was told. I absolutely agree, especially considering fifty percent of District 205 students are poor. Also, I give 205 credit for discussing socioeconomic class.

However, it's not enough to talk about poor children: poor children have a right to be educated, and usually they're cheated. Sadly, Payne only devoted a small portion near the end of her lecture to strategies for teaching students who live in poverty. She explained that she had discussed strategies earlier in the day. But what works with students should be her focus, not a few sentences tacked to the end of a speech.

I confess I agree with Payne on some things. For instance, teachers generally don't understand poor kids. Also, poor kids need to learn how the capitalist system works, so they can exploit it, because it usually exploits them. Payne is right when she implies that standardized tests have been detrimental to poor children because they give a blurry snap shot, instead of a complete picture of a student's day-by-­day performance. She's right to remind us there's human capital in relationships; it's called "networking." Poor kids need to know how to network. For sure, teachers need to help students build what Payne calls a "future story" – a vision of what they want their life to be like down the road. Even more important, educators need to help poor kids figure out how to make that story become a reality. Like Payne, I believe people should take personal responsibility, but not just poor people – affluent people, too. Finally, I give Ruby Payne credit for trying to turn her theory into practice, taking it to educators instead of spouting it from some think tank; what's more, her book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, contains some useful suggestions.

However, Payne’s poverty theory has flaws that shouldn’t be ignored, and I brought some of these up with her during our interview.

First, I asked why Framework hardly mentions parents? In my years of teaching, the parents of poor children had been one of my most valuable resources. She said more references to parents are in her new book published two weeks ago. Payne also explained that she wrote Framework “really fast.” It wasn’t meant for researchers. It’s “a practical guide for practitioners.”

Here’s the problem: If Payne wants to give teachers a practical guide to help students in poverty succeed, then it's essential that she bring parents into the process. Reginald Clark in his book, Family Life and School Achievement: Why Poor Black Children Succeed or Fail, reveals when a parent is involved in the child's academic life, the child is bound to do well. Furthermore, it is the duty of educators to get parents involved, not wait for parents to come to them. Educators who successfully teach poor children, forge a partnership with the parents. They are the teachers who seek the parent's counsel while providing ways for a parent to help a child learn.

Another criticism of Payne comes form Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu, an educational consultant with the firm African American Images. In his book, An African Centered Response to Ruby Payne's Poverty Theory, Kunjufu faults Payne for making no distinction between the poverty experienced in white rural America from black urban poverty. Sure, Kunjufu is competing with Ruby Payne for the same consultant dollar, but I'm also convinced he's right. When asked about his criticism, Payne said she simply doesn't have time to talk about race and poverty.

Payne should read The Other America: Poverty in the United States, by Michael Harrington. She cherry-picked a quotation from him out of another source and stuck it in Framework. However, she must not have read the fourth chapter of Harrington's 1960's classic where he tells the reader that poverty among African Americans is "unique" because it is based on a "long history" of "an interlocking base of economic and racial injustice."

Of course, poverty isn't racial: being black doesn't mean you're poor. In fact, more white Americans live in poverty than African Americans. However, what Ruby Payne doesn't recognize is that poverty experienced by African Americans has very different origins and manifests itself in ways subtlety divergent from poverty among white Americans. Same can be said for Hispanic groups and Native American Indian tribes – different history, different experience, different culture. When Payne runs away from the political construct of race, she deprives herself of the valuable resources available in those communities suffering from racism. Resources that could expedite her cause, not burden it.

A frequent criticism of Payne's work is that she perpetuates stereotypes. She denied it, telling me that her work is an analytical study of class that looks at how people think. She went on to say, "Stereotyping occurs when you apply the patterns in a group to everybody in the group. But your brain is going to process in patterns, and they can be informed or they can be uninformed."

Payne believes she's not fostering stereotyping; however, I think she is. A social theorist should make it clear that social patterns are generalizations punctuated by significant individual departures within a group. Ruby Payne doesn't make this distinction enough.

I brought up the case study of Walter, appearing in chapter four of Framework. Walter is convicted of molestation, and his mother excuses him. In the book, Payne says of her, "She leans on the self-­righteous defense of being moral and Christian, but not in the middle-class sense of Christianity." I asked her if she was saying that the middle class view of Christianity was superior to the view held by poor people. She answered, "What is misunderstood by the critics [of my theory] is that one set of rules in one class is better than another. I have never said that. They're just different."

That's a good answer. Problem is, Payne gives such a litany of anti-social behaviors connected with poverty, I don’t see how "uninformed" people can help but have stereotypes reinforced. According to Ruby Payne, poor people are confrontational and fight, obsessed with sex, are loud talkers with limited verbal skills, and like dirty jokes. But that description doesn't jibe with my experience.

Three years ago I worked with people whose children attend Cooke School. They were trying to persuade the board not to close that building. Most of the children who attend Cooke come from poor families. The children are poor. The parents are poor. But these folks had no problem expressing themselves; they had no language deficiency. Nobody cussed out the District 205 administration or threatened to fight the superintendent or school board president. Instead, they made their case, and five of the board members voted to keep Cooke open. And Cooke is thriving.

The poor people I've known in my life are the people who work hard every day. They clean up messes and empty bedpans in nursing homes. They carry our trash away from our houses. They prepare and serve our food and make up beds in hotels. They are the people who work two and three jobs to keep their family together. All I ask of Ruby Payne is to tell audiences about these folks.

The last question I asked Dr. Payne was this: How many people have raised themselves out of poverty due to your theory? She answered, "I have no idea."

That says a lot.

I do think Ruby Payne cares about poor children. She's definitely a shrewd businesswoman who knows how to market her ideas. Some of those ideas I agree with – but not all of them.

When it comes to Ruby Payne, or any educational guru, I would suggest that educators be like homeless people. The homeless are the most resourceful people I know. They have a way of sorting out the useful from the useless. Educators should do the same with theories. They should take what they can use and leave the rest.




Sources used for this article:



Clark, Reginald M. Family Life and School Achievement: Why Poor Black Children Succeed or Fail.

Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Harrington, Michael. The Other America: Poverty in the United States. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1962.

Kunjufu, Jawanza. An African Centered Response to Ruby Payne's Poverty Theory. Chicago: African American Images, 2005.

Payne, Ruby. A Framework for Understanding Poverty. Highlands, TX: aha! Process, Inc., 1996.



Gorski, Paul "The Classist Underpinnings of Ruby Payne's Framework" in TCRecord: The Voice of Scholarship in Education. Feb. 9, 2006

Tough, Paul. '"The Class-Consciousness Raiser" in The New York Times, June 10, 2007


Other Sources:

Interview with Dr. Ruby Payne conducted by Jim Jacobs on Feb. 20, 2008 at Galesburg Senior High School.

Ruby Payne's website at