Revisiting Ruby Payne

The New York Times gives poverty player a pass

By Anita Perna Bohn

Illustrator: Illustration: Stephen Kroninger

Illustration: Stephen Kroninger

Ruby Payne’s reign as avatar of social class consciousness in America continues, or so a recent article in the New York Times Magazinewould have one believe.

Payne is CEO of aha!Process, Inc., a multimillion dollar corporation that offers workshops to educators based on the “culture of poverty” premise. Payne’s thesis and the validity of her “research” on poverty were critically examined in the Winter 2006/2007 issue of Rethinking Schools; those critiques are referenced in the June 10, 2007, New York Times Magazine article.

The Times article, written by editor Paul Tough, chronicles a day in the life of Payne as she presents her popular teachers’ workshop on A Framework for Understanding Poverty to 1,400 employees of the Glynn County (Ga.) Board of Education, which closed school for the day and bused its teachers and administrators to hear Payne reveal the hidden rules of class. The Times article also offers readers a glimpse into Payne’s private life and the circumstances and inspirations that led to her multimillion dollar enterprise. Tough’s uncritical five-page infomercial for Payne’s consulting company spotlights her already lucrative business in a publicity spread for which most companies would kill. It also dismisses Payne’s critics as “a few angry assistant professors” who hound her “like gnats at a backyard barbecue.”

Here are just a few ideas about poverty, social class, and valid research that were fit to print in the Times article:

Poverty is a choice. Poor people persist in certain behaviors that keep them in poverty: their “habits and styles and traditions… pose deep obstacles out of poverty.”

Lack of social mobility in this country is actually the result of “widespread misunderstanding among the classes” — a failure to communicate, if you will.

You can move up the class ladder if you are willing to sacrifice many of your relationships, change your values, and carefully study Payne’s hidden rules of class.

Two sample “hidden rules” of class you apparently need to know are: poor people hang their pictures high on the wall. Rich people don’t eat casseroles.

When the head-shaking and tongue-clucking that these ideas provoke fade away, two baffling questions still want answers:

1) Why is her message so popular with school districts and so many of the teachers who attend her seminars?
One answer seems to be that, for many, it feels good and it’s easy to understand. Payne’s motivational speaker approach entertains and fits neatly into a three-hour or six-hour package (depending on how much a school is willing to pay) with an assortment of one-liners, a comforting trinity-form of pronouncements on class behavior, and a heart-warming collection of they-once-were-lost-but-now-they’re-found stories. It offers a path of little resistance. Payne reaffirms the existing system with what, evidently, are credible and familiar stereotypes of people in poverty as violence-prone, at odds with the law, unable to delay gratification, etc. These demeaning images are followed by a reassuring not-to-worry — poor students’ lack of success is all a big misunderstanding. They just haven’t been taught how to get with the middle class program. We’re all right. Our values and practices as teachers and administrators, the school district’s curriculum and testing systems, the state’s school funding practices, the government educational policies, and society’s economic and social structures are not responsible for these students’ lack of success. There’s no need to feel the discomfort that comes with the realization that we all participate, willingly or unwillingly, in a system designed to faithfully reproduce the existing class structure.

A second answer to the question of Payne’s popularity seems to be that few alternatives exist in the world of continuing professional development for teachers that directly address poverty and education. Payne and her staff are about the only people riding the staff development circuit offering advice to schools and administrators on the topic of social class and school success. Even though the one-shot teachers’ workshop approach has been lamented for years in the professional literature for its lack of coherence and continuity and for failing to appreciate the complexity of teachers’ work, it is also evident that teachers still receive most of their official staff development through some form of quick-fix inservices. Payne’s popularity underscores the fact that many teachers and school administrators truly want to know how to help children from poverty succeed, but no one else is stepping into the void with ideas about how to do this. When School Improvement Days roll around, school administrators desperate for affordable answers about working with low-income children and families turn to Payne’s framework with astonishing regularity. Google “School Improvement Plan” + “Ruby Payne” for a glimpse of the school districts across the nation in whose school improvement plans Payne’s framework plays a central role.

2) Why is the New York Times so comfortable with Payne’s views on class issues in public education?
At face value, this is indeed puzzling. Paul Tough seems to have forgotten the New York Times’ own 10-part series on class in America only two years ago, “Class Matters.” in May of 2005. That series demonstrated how a class system is alive and well in the United States. Statistics showed that the social class one is born into is the class one may expect to stay in as an adult. They illustrated that social class determines how healthy and how long-lived people will be, and how much access people will have to education and to jobs. The series debunked the myth of upward mobility in America by reporting statistics showing less social mobility in the United States now than in the ’80s (and less in the ’80s than in the ’70s) and less mobility here than in most other industrial countries. It showed how well the super-rich have done financially in recent years: While the real income of the bottom 90 percent of Americans fell from 1980 to 2002, the income of the top 0.1 percent (making $1.6 million a year or more) went up two and a half times in real terms before taxes. The series made it clear that class has little to do with manners and home decorating ideas, and everything to do with who has the power to make decisions that drive the economy and exert influence on government, who benefits from those decisions, and who does not.

Instead of calling upon these dire statistics on class mobility, the Times Magazine reporter spends his time commenting on Payne’s “bright red lipstick and blow-dried blond hair,” and drolly describing the “spirit guides” who inspired her to write A Framework for Understanding Poverty in one week and figure out how to market it so she might fulfill her dream of “a life without financial constraints.” By article’s end, Tough pens, with sardonic journalistic detachment, enough unflattering glimpses of Payne that readers may suspect he personally is not convinced by Payne’s thesis; unfortunately, if this is true, he does not appear concerned enough to challenge it.

As for Payne, she finds Tough’s article trancendent. She has posted the article on her own aha!Process company webpage, with a gushing note of praise flowered with rich adjectives such as “balanced,” “credible,” and “compelling.” “[T]his article merits taking a few moments to read it in its entirety,” Payne tells readers.

The New York Times is arguably the most respected and influential newspaper in the world. It had a golden opportunity but let its readers down by refusing to look beneath the surface of the Ruby Payne phenomenon. They could have but did not connect Payne’s basic theories about class mobility to their own investigative journalism unmasking the economic and political manipulations that have seriously decreased social mobility and are squeezing out the middle class. They could have but did not connect Payne’s status quo theories about why poor kids aren’t as successful in school to her strong support for the No Child Left Behind sanctions that have become her and many other corporations’ bread-and-butter.

One of the astonishing successes of the conservative attack on public education is the tacit support it has received from liberals and neoliberals such as those found among the New York Times readership. The Times’ failure to make the consequences of the conservative education agenda transparent has allowed its readers to slip into bed with the conservative right on public education reform. Tough’s amused journalistic drive-by does nothing to help readers understand that marketplace solutions will not fix the crisis in education — that it is, in fact, a crisis that marketplace mechanisms have created.

Newspapers across the nation have had a field day splashing the news of “poor performing schools” across their front pages. The time is past due for newspapers like the New York Times to turn their investigative talents toward revealing the underlying political goal of the accountability juggernaut rolling over the nation’s schools — the privatization of education — and to explain what this would mean not only to the millions of children and families in poverty, but to our nation as a whole.

There is an urgent need for coverage of the ample, scientifically-based research data about the disastrous effects of NCLB, connecting the dots to show us how, when education is moved out of the public sector and into the private sector, it only intensifies the rigidity in a class system. The public needs a chance to hear the voices of the students, families, and teachers in the trenches who have seen firsthand what happens when profit motives trump social objectives, when the lack of transparency in a system encourages corruption, when people no longer have any control or oversight over what constitutes knowledge and education for their children, and when civil liberties do not have to be protected. It is time for a democratic free press to turn up the lights on the real crisis in public education and show Americans how the current education reform movement is actually an attack on the very premises of democracy and the public good.

Anita Perna Bohn ( is an associate professor at Illinois State University. She wrote “A Framework for Understanding Ruby Payne” in the Winter 2006/07 issue of Rethinking Schools.