A Framework for Understanding Ruby Payne

By Anita Bohn

Illustrator: Katherine Streeter

Illustration: Katherine Streeter

For Ruby K. Payne, founder and CEO of the for-profit consulting and publishing company called aha! Process Inc. in Highlands, Texas, poverty is big business. Since 1996, Payne and her assistants have been conducting 200 seminars a year training as many as 25,000 teachers and school administrators to work with children from poverty, making her the single biggest influence on teachers’ understanding of children from poverty in the United States.

I first heard the name Ruby Payne from teachers and school administrators about eight years ago when interviewing a school district about professional development opportunities in multicultural education in their district. Several teachers and an administrator told me Payne had been brought to town to conduct workshops for the teachers and that the district had bought each participant a copy of her book A Framework for Understanding Poverty. Over the next few years I heard references like this over and over again, not only in my home state of Illinois, but from teachers and administrators around the country.

Initially, I had trouble finding out much about Payne’s work, apart from these word-of-mouth testimonials. My university library, a good one with substantial holdings, had no books by Ruby Payne, nor did the consortium of university libraries to which it belonged. When I typed the name “Ruby Payne” into a Google search, though, I hit a jackpot of sorts: Google reported thousands of hits. School districts across the nation and even in Australia and New Zealand announced upcoming aha! Process workshops for teachers, or reported on workshops recently conducted in their districts.

How had someone so widely hailed in the public schools as an expert on poverty been ignored by national research institutes, higher education, and all the major, published authorities on the subject of poverty? It took several months of investigating print and media sources on Payne, interviewing participants and trainers of her workshops, and participating in two initial training sessions before I finally was able to shed some light on the phenomenon called Ruby Payne.

The Framework

Payne’s principal message is that poverty is not simply a monetary condition. She describes it to her audiences as a culture with particular rules, values, and knowledge transmitted from one generation to the next that inform people how to live their lives successfully — how to build and keep relationships, how to get one’s needs met, how to entertain and be entertained, and more. Payne asserts that children growing up in a culture of poverty do not succeed because they have been taught the “hidden rules of poverty,” but not the hidden rules of being middle class.

Likewise, Payne claims, public school teachers who are predominately from the middle class do not understand or relate to their students from poverty because they don’t appreciate the hidden and essential rules for survival in poverty. Payne sees her educational mission as opening channels of communication, making explicit the hidden rules of class at all levels, and encouraging teachers to teach children of poverty the rules of middle class.

In A Framework for Understanding Poverty, Payne asks her readers, as she asks her audiences, to take her “Could you survive?” quizzes. Here are a few examples of what Payne considers the essential knowledge of the lower class:

  • I know how to get someone out of jail.
  • I know how to physically fight and defend myself physically.
  • I know how to get a gun, even if I have a police record.
  • I know how to entertain a group of friends with my personality and my stories.

A few hidden rules from the middle class are:

  • I know how to hire a private attorney to handle a criminal or civil matter.
  • I know how to reserve a table at a restaurant.
  • I know how to set and decorate a table with flowers, place mats, and napkins.
  • I know how to evaluate and purchase appropriate medical, life, disability, homeowners, auto, and personal property insurance.

On my first read-through of the “rules” I didn’t know whether to laugh at the sheer stupidity of some of them or to rage at the offensive stereotyping of people in poverty and the thinly veiled bigotry reflected in others. I am still hard pressed to understand why ideas like this have made Payne the hottest speaker/trainer on poverty on the public school circuit today. One thing is certain, though: Ruby Payne has flown under the radar far too long. It’s time for teachers and administrators to take a critical look at her immensely popular message.

Troubling Features

Payne and the company she owns, aha! Process Inc., self-publish her books. That means her research does not have to be verifiable, reproducible, valid, or reliable in order to get published. Payne’s promotional materials talk about her valuable “case studies,” but you quickly learn from reading her books and attending her workshops that there is nothing more substantive than a few random anecdotes about children and families she claims to have encountered over the years. These anecdotes become even less credible when they are parroted by one of her minions, who are available to present to your group for somewhat lower rates than Payne herself. I attended one such workshop led by an underling, and found the speaker’s presentation sprinkled with stories that generally began “Ruby talks about this one girl…” or “Ruby has this one family who….” Whatever this is, it is not research.

Payne’s books and lectures present a superficial and insulting picture of children and families in poverty. Poor people, according to Payne, are scofflaws perpetually looking for a fight or some other good time when they are not busy milking the system. The “case studies” that I personally heard referred to in her workshops made her audiences laugh and cluck their tongues, and bordered on bigotry. Payne’s books primarily are sold to those who hire her or one of her representatives to conduct seminars. That turns out to be a requirement of Payne’s contract when she signs up with a school district: that they purchase one of her books for every participant — a very convenient and lucrative arrangement. In fact, many of the books themselves — especially the main Framework book — are virtually useless without the accompanying seminar. They are more like workbooks with the answers missing, or a collection of overhead transparencies meant to be filled in with the speaker’s remarks.

Payne directly targets one of the largest, hungriest markets for quick fixes in public education: the ubiquitous and mandated inservices organized and offered in every school district in the nation. Payne charges real money for her services — $300 per individual registrant on her public tours, and upwards of $3000 for three-day contract workshops with school districts, plus the required textbook purchases. Her secrets to working with children of poverty are making her a very rich woman while the school districts that hire her are districts with high poverty rates and in need of workable solutions.

Downright Dangerous Message

The self-promoting nature of Payne’s practices is not really what makes her ideas so harmful, though. It’s what teachers are learning in the workshops that worries me. One teacher told me after an aha!Process workshop that something she learned in Payne’s seminar was “poor people can’t think abstractly.” Consider the curricular decisions that might be made by a teacher who takes away that understanding of her students from a Ruby Payne workshop.

Payne offers teachers and administrators something very seductive: simple and comfortable solutions to complex school problems. Payne’s facile answers allow teachers and administrators to place the blame for low-income children’s lack of academic success entirely outside the schools.

The real danger of Payne’s ideology is that it effectively prevents social change. It makes us believe that we can reduce the problem of poverty without needing to make any changes in society or in our own lives. We just need to teach them a different set of rules to live by. As every social scientist knows, social beliefs shape social policy; if our beliefs about poverty were different, our social and public policies about poverty would be different. If we believed that racism and oppression accounted for a good deal of poverty, there would be a greater emphasis on social rights and social responsibility, on economic opportunity programs, on progressive rather than regressive taxation, on the right to living wages with retirement benefits, and on access to good education and health care.

Are There Any Valuable Ideas?

Ruby Payne’s popularity attests to the urgent need for answers to the questions and concerns of teachers and administrators who sincerely want to help children from lower socioeconomic status achieve educational equity. We know that the learning, academic achievement, and social development of students who are in poverty can be affected positively or negatively by the attitudes of teachers and administrators. Payne’s intention of helping teachers and administrators become aware and appreciate the circumstances of people who seem unfamiliar to them is an honorable one; the problem is, as that intention is realized, it is riddled with factual inaccuracies and harmful stereotypes.

Payne places a good deal of emphasis on the fact that children in poverty would benefit from more explicit instructional strategies to help them understand and think about ideas presented in class — strategies like graphic organizers and multiple approaches to learning about a concept. There is some truth to this premise. But 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.

What Do We Need to Know?

Instead of allowing ourselves to be misled about a culture of poverty, we need to critically examine the culture of denial that has become institutionalized in our society and has caused the study of poverty in the last 20 years to be more concerned with promoting a theory of individual culpability than with addressing institutionalized inequities. We need to understand that the poor themselves are not the problem; the problem is the fact that the poor do not have realistic opportunities to escape from poverty.

The real answers aren’t easy ones. They require us to work at all levels within the system and outside of it as advocates and change agents for children and families. We need to work collaboratively with organizations and political movements that fight for systemic improvement of the lives of children and families in poverty and strive to ensure people’s basic human rights to adequate food, housing, medical care, decent education, and an equal opportunity to succeed.

There are teachers who celebrate small successes with significant numbers of children from poverty every day, against enormous odds. They remind us that existing answers are not secrets we need pay big bucks to learn. Their answers are free: It takes hard work and unwavering dedication. It takes committed teachers and administrators willing to set high expectations and offer engaging curricula that make strong personal connections for their students. It takes schools where students are not just prepared to take and pass standardized tests, but where they are taught how to play a conscious, active role in society, how to recognize and combat racism and other institutionalized inequities, and how to work in pursuit of the dream of social and global justice.

Anita Perna Bohn (apbohn@ilstu.edu) is an assistant professor at Illinois State University.