Savage Unrealities

Classism and racism abound in Ruby Payne's Framework

By Paul Gorski

Illustrator: Jordin Sip

Illustration: Jordin Sip

The popularity of the vast array of products and services available through Ruby Payne’s for-profit business, aha! Process Inc., has made her one of the most influential voices in today’s education milieu. Rarely do I participate in conversations about poverty without somebody extolling her virtues or those of her book A Framework for Understanding Poverty (hereafter referred to as A Framework).

I remember, about seven years ago, when I first heard rumblings about the Payne phenomenon, I had been frustrated by what seemed to be a lull in national dialogue about classism in education since Jonathan Kozol’s landmark Savage Inequalities (1992). Finally, I was led to believe, a scholar had emerged to lead the fight for socioeconomic equity in schools. And, like Kozol, she had been a classroom teacher. I was thrilled by the possibilities.

Then I read A Framework. And I was horrified.

Instead of a commitment to equity and justice I found a framework for understanding poverty that frames poverty as a deficit among students and parents and draws on racist and classist stereotypes.

Yet, despite a growing avalanche of criticism by anti-poverty and anti-racist educators and activists, schools and districts across the United States continue to entrust Payne with preparing teachers to work with economically disadvantaged students, sometimes at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I wanted to examine Payne’s framework through a social justice lens, exposing classism and racism in A Framework and her other books and essays. Here’s what I found.

Conservative Framing

Despite common misperceptions, Payne’s work is inspired by many right-wing politicians and pundits most hostile to economically disadvantaged students and their families. The result is a framework more concerned with conserving the status quo than with dismantling systems of power and privilege.

For example, Payne remains an outspoken advocate of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) even though she lives in Texas, where its precursors proved devastating to students in poverty. She’s written a four-part series of essays supporting the legislation (see html). The scholar she cites most heavily in these essays is Thomas Sowell, senior fellow of the right-wing Hoover Institution and ultra-conservative critic of progressive social and education reforms. Payne not only supports President Bush’s education policies, she also supports Bush himself. She has contributed thousands of dollars to his presidential campaigns and the Republican National Committee since 1999, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Consistent with this pattern, Payne’s work is replete with conservative values. One of the key tenets of her work is assimilation — the notion that economically disadvantaged people must adopt the values and behaviors of the middle class in order to achieve academically.

In order to make this argument Payne contends that people in poverty share a “mindset” or “culture” different from that of upper- and middle-class people. In actuality, a single mindset of poverty no more exists than a single mindset of blackness, differently-abled-ness, or woman-ness. Can we assume, for example, that poor white U.S. citizens from Appalachian West Virginia share a mindset and culture with poor Somali refugees who arrived in Minnesota last month?

In another classic conservative reframe, Payne muddles the relationship between the causes and effects of poverty. She writes, for example, “Poverty is caused by interrelated factors: parental employment status and earnings, family structure, and parental education.” But parental employment status and parental education do not cause poverty. They reflect the impact of poverty.

By minimizing the varied experiences of all economically disadvantaged people into a single mindset, then identifying this mindset as the cause of poverty, Payne builds a framework for understanding poverty that avoids larger questions about the current wave of conservative education policy. And in doing so, she fails to address what many students in poverty do have in common: inequitable access to the highest quality education available, to high-quality healthcare and housing options, and to other basic services that most professional educators, who are predominantly middle class, take for granted.

Failing to Acknowledge Systemic Classism

Payne provides no analysis of institutionalized power or classism. She avoids mentioning the myriad inequities affecting high-poverty schools, which are more likely to have unlicensed teachers, crumbling facilities, growing class sizes, and insufficient classroom materials than low-poverty schools. How are we to understand poverty in relation to education without understanding how the very structure of formal schooling in the United States replicates the inequities that keep many of our students’ families in poverty?

Similarly, Payne never addresses the aforementioned wave of conservative education reforms — high-stakes testing, prescribed curricula, tracking, re-segregation, many “choice” and voucher programs — that maintain the legacy of privilege for the wealthy at the expense of economically disadvantaged students.

Payne grew up middle class, worked predominantly in wealthy schools, and now annually conducts millions of dollars worth of “anti-poverty” workshops through her for-profit business. It may stand to reason, then, that instead of naming and addressing classism, she falls in line with the kinds of inequities that ensure her privilege rather than disrupting — or even mentioning — them.

Relying on Deficit Theory

Among the downloadable materials available through the aha! Process website is Payne’s “Reflections on Katrina and the Role of Poverty in the Gulf Coast Crisis” (2006). In this short essay Payne reflects:

The violence was to be expected. Words are not seen as being very effective in generational poverty to resolve differences; fists are…. Furthermore, to resolve a conflict, one must have the ability to go from the personal to the issue, and the words largely are not there to do that.

She continues:

Additionally, in neighborhoods of generational poverty, two of the primary economic systems are prostitution and drugs. After Katrina struck, both of these economies were virtually wiped out overnight. Furthermore, individuals in jail were released because there was no plan about how to handle them.

In just a couple of paragraphs Payne manages to exploit nearly every stereotypical “deficiency” of high-poverty communities: violence, drug use and distribution, crime, and prostitution. Meanwhile, she remains mum on racist and classist government inaction before, during, and after Katrina. If only those people had stronger values and fewer moral deficits, she seems to suggest, the Katrina tragedy might have been avoided.

Deficit theorists explain social and economic hierarchies by identifying deficiencies in the cultures and behaviors of some identity groups. They blame oppressed people for their oppression by ignoring systemic inequities and drawing on stereotypes already established in the mainstream consciousness. Deficit theory has been discredited by decades of research revealing that people in poverty have similar aspirations and values as economically privileged people and that the disadvantages they face result from injustice, not personal deficiency.

A Framework is a virtual case study in deficit theory. Payne draws on the most egregious and unsubstantiated stereotypes of socioeconomically disadvantaged people and people of color, supporting the notion that we must fix poor people instead of eradicating classism. A brief flip-through of A Framework reveals outrageously classist statements, none of which are substantiated by research. Payne writes, for example, that poor people consider jail a normal part of life and not necessarily bad (p. 36), that discipline in families of poverty consists of verbally chastising and “physically beat[ing] the child” before forgiving and ultimately feeding the child (p. 37), and that people in poverty commonly trade sex for money and favors (p. 38).

Payne repeats these sentiments throughout A Framework. They appear most explicitly in her “scenarios,” brief vignettes that introduce readers to Payne’s prototypical families in poverty. The following chart summarizes all seven scenarios from A Framework along with the stereotypes employed in them and the racial identities of the characters involved.

Like Payne’s reflections on Katrina, these vignettes exhibit all of the moral and intellectual “deficits” usually attributed to economically disadvantaged people, strengthening the message that the real change must happen within people in poverty and not within the systems that create and maintain poverty. Meanwhile, Payne renders the average person in poverty — the hard working, drug- and alcohol-free, education-valuing, nonviolent, responsible, non-criminal person — invisible. Such people simply don’t exist in her framework.

Amazingly, in introducing the scenarios Payne informs readers that she has “deliberately omitted most of the physical, sexual, and emotional abuse” from the stories. How much more racist and classist might these depictions have been had Payne provided a complete picture of the deficits she associates with people in poverty?

Equally troubling is Payne’s contention of a connection between poverty and a lack of spiritual resources. In Hidden Rules of Class at Work, for example, Payne and Don L. Krabill suggest that belief “in a higher power” and affiliation with religious groups move people away from the culture of poverty.

Frameworks built upon deficit theory reinforce images of people in poverty as morally inferior. This reinforces what Herbert Gans calls the middle- and upper-class notion of the “undeserving poor” — a concept that leads to deterioration of public support for effective anti-poverty policy (such as equitable school funding).

This assertion of superiority, this practice of locating the problem of poverty in the oppressed and not the systems that oppress them, is the epitome of deficit theory and classism.

Ignoring Race, Supporting Racism

When challenged to explain her refusal to address the intersections between race and poverty in the United States, Payne argues that her work is not about race but about class. According to Payne and Philip DeVol, “One can be examined without the other…. Class exists around the world with many different races. It can be examined separately, and we do so.” While it’s true that class exists around the world, Payne and DeVol are wrong on both other counts.

First, it’s impossible to develop a deep understanding of class and poverty in the United States without considering race, gender, and a host of other variables that affect access to educational and economic opportunities. In fact, race and racism as they exist in the United States have always been connected with economic exploitation. Slavery, Jim Crow, housing discrimination, segregational school redistricting — these are all examples of how racism has been used to maintain economic and political power in the hands of relatively few wealthy white men.

And although Payne ignores the relationship between race and class in most of her work, the seven scenarios described above contradict her assertion that her work is only about class. If she intends to focus solely on class, why does she name the racial identities of the characters in these vignettes?

More importantly, why does she paint such racist portraits of the African-American and Latino families in her scenarios? Payne identifies violent tendencies, whether in the form of gang violence or child abuse, in three of the four families of color depicted in the vignettes, but not in any of the three white families. Each of the families of color, but only one of three white families, features at least one unemployed or sporadically employed working-age adult. Whereas two of the three white children have at least one stable caretaker, three of the four children of color — Otis, who is beaten by his mother; Opie, who is left in the care of her “senile” grandmother; and Juan, who is being raised by his gang-leader, drug-dealer uncle — appear to have none.

In addition to the scenarios, Payne offers a series of case studies in which she doesn’t explicitly name the characters’ racial identities. But she does include a case study for LaKeitha, which is accompanied in the 2001 edition of A Framework by a clip-art image of an African-American girl. LaKeitha, whose father is in jail, was kicked out of class for being “extremely rude.” Her mother missed a meeting with the teacher about LaKeitha’s behavior because she was arrested for driving without a license. So, whereas Payne ignores the crucial intersection of racism and poverty, she does find a way to draw race into her framework in the form of racist stereotypes.

Toward a More Authentic Framework

An authentic framework for understanding poverty must begin with a critical examination of classism. Where does classism exist in our schools? How does this classism replicate injustices outside our school walls? How do our policies, practices, assumptions, and pedagogies privilege some students at the expense of other students?

The challenge for many of us is that, in order to prepare ourselves for that conversation, we must grapple with deeper issues about class consciousness such as corporate capitalism and its influence on public schools, consumer culture, the scarcity of living wage jobs, environmental deterioration that disproportionately affects poor neighborhoods, the elimination of social programs supporting poor families, skyrocketing costs of health care and higher education, and on and on.

As individuals, we must consider how we’ve been socialized to comply — even unconsciously — with such injustices. It’s this socialization, I believe, that has led so many teachers and administrators to buy into Payne’s framework, which calls on people to comply, to locate the problem of poverty on the people it represses while avoiding these larger issues and our own prejudices.

Other important tenets of an authentic framework for understanding poverty and eradicating classism in our schools must include:

  • Acknowledgement of the intersections of class, race, gender, (dis)ability, and other equity issues.
  • An insistence on and strategies for the elimination of the vast array of structural inequities that privilege middle-class and wealthy students at the expense of economically disadvantaged students.
  • A critical examination of policies, conditions, and practices such as high-stakes testing, tracking, and attacks on bilingual education, that disproportionately rob economically disadvantaged students of opportunities afforded their wealthier peers.
  • Strategies, not simply for working with poor students and parents, but for eliminating classism within one’s school or district.

Most importantly, a genuine framework for understanding poverty must prepare teachers and all members of society to be agents of social and educational reform. We need to fix the structures, policies, and practices that contribute to the poverty cycle, and not, as Payne’s framework does, to “fix” the people most oppressed by classism.

Resources on Class, Poverty, and Education Equity


Chomsky on Mis-Education by Noam Chomsky, 2004.

Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Education Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap by Richard Rothstein, 2004.

Dividing Classes: How the Middle Class Negotiates and Rationalizes School Advantage by Ellen Brantlinger, 2003.

Economic Apartheid in America by Chuck Collins and Felice Yeskel, 2000.

Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality, 2nd edition, by Jeannie Oakes, 2005.

Poverty and Schooling in the U.S. by Sue Books, 2004.

The Shame of a Nation by Jonathan Kozol, 2006.

The War Against the Poor by Herbert Gans, 1995.

Research Reports

A shared responsibility: Staffing all high-poverty, low-performing schools with effective teachers and administrators by the Learning First Alliance, 2005.

Fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education: A two-tiered education system by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, 2004.

The funding gap 2004: Many states still shortchange low-income and minority students by the Education Trust, 2005.

Peer-Reviewed Critiques of Ruby Payne’s Framework

Gorski, P. “The Classist Underpinnings of Ruby Payne’s Framework,” Teachers College Record, Feb. 9, 2006.

Ng, J. and Rury, J. “Poverty and Education: A Critical Analysis of the Ruby Payne Phenomenon,” Teachers College Record, July 18, 2006.

Osei-Kofi, N. “Pathologizing the Poor: A Framework for Understanding Ruby Payne’s Work, Equity and Excellence in Education 38(4), pp. 367-375.


Amnesty International USA:

Economic Policy Institute:

Kids Can Make a Difference:

Make Poverty History:

Poverty & Race Research Action Council:

— Compiled by

Paul C. Gorski ( is an assistant professor in the graduate school of education at Hamline University and founder of References for this article are available from the author.