Ruby Payne helps spark community conversation on poverty

Thursday, August 11, 2011 | 9:43 p.m. CDT; updated 4:14 p.m. CDT, Friday, August 12, 2011

COLUMBIA –From the way she talked, you wouldn't have thought Ruby Payne was one of the more controversial figures in the education world.

Her presentation on class differences at the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts on Thursday, which was sponsored by the Heart of Missouri United Way, was lighthearted and casual. The audience of more than 150 people laughed as Payne recounted story after story from her own experiences and others, which illustrated ideas she first published in her book "A Framework for Understanding Poverty."

Payne has made her career detailing what she calls a cognitive model, where class is understood not just by the resources available to a person but also by how they think about those resources.

Those present weren't necessarily there just to hear her views; they were looking to start a conversation in the community on poverty.

Tim Rich, executive director of the Heart of Missouri United Way, said before Payne began that he hopes this to be the first of many presentations on the subject of poverty.

Many members of the audience echoed his sentiment. Rachel Mazzocco, a teacher at Cedar Ridge Elementary School, said before the presentation that she was glad to be opening a dialogue on the topic of poverty. Nick Foster, a hospice chaplain with Home  Care of Mid-Missouri, said the goal of the presentation, as well as the workshop to follow Friday, seemed to be to create discussion on the topic of poverty in Columbia.

Jack Jenson, a volunteer with the Heart of Missouri United Way, said he thought Payne presented good ideas, particularly on broadening one's view beyond a personal experience. He said he was interested to see where the discussion would go next.

Within the presentation, there was little to suggest how controversial Payne is in academic circles.

Both of the books she was selling at the event, "A Framework for Understanding Poverty" and "Bridges Out of Poverty" have been praised by many teachers, but Payne acknowledged that some have accused her of not backing up her model with statistics. She also has been accused of enforcing class stereotypes and generalizing those in poverty.

She said because the concept is new, it still needs to be studied as a concept before it can be explored in research.

Payne said the reason many poor students fail in school is because their thought process is different from their teacher's, and that difference leads to miscommunication between them. She refers frequently to social cues, or "hidden rules," as examples of exactly how this breakdown in communication occurs.

Community member Steve Calloway said he found the presentation insightful but was still thinking about the ideas presented. He also said he was interested in the role of race in poverty, which Payne did not cover, though she briefly cited a statistic saying 58 percent of the poor are white. According to the 2009 American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, about 61 percent of those below the poverty line were white.

Calloway also said he hoped the conversation would expand beyond just schools to the broader issue of poverty in Columbia.

Foster shared Calloway's feeling. "I hope we find a way to bring people of low income to the table," he said.

For Mazzocco, the importance of starting the discussion could not be overstated.

"Nothing breaks your heart more than seeing a child suffering," she said.

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Allan Sharrock August 12, 2011 | 8:16 a.m.

It would be interesting to know what data source she used to define poverty. The USDA define poverty a lot different than what we may define poverty as.

(Report Comment)
Glyn Coakley August 12, 2011 | 9:13 a.m.

You're absolutely right! We actually tried to find the source of the figure, but because I was writing on a print deadline, we just couldn't find it before we needed to move the story. I'll do some more digging today to see if I can find it and add it to the story; I'm pretty sure I've heard that number thrown around before, and finding the source and their definition of poverty would certainly add a relevant perspective to the story.

Thanks for pointing that out!

-Glyn Coakley

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire August 12, 2011 | 10:55 a.m.

It sounds like Ruby Payne is a victim of a type of poverty that she may eventually understand.

(Report Comment)
Cheyenne Greene August 12, 2011 | 1:39 p.m.

sorry I missed this. Since she did NOT consider race I will find it more credible. Poverty is what it is, you can't wiegh it with racial or any other statistic that is dynamic.
I was initially turned off to the subject because I get tired of people telling me about hungry children. Show me! We feed our community better now than any time in my lifetime. Poverty has greater afflictions than hunger.
Besides I hear Tracy G-Rice called her dangerous, now I know I would like her.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield August 12, 2011 | 2:25 p.m.

"I hope we find a way to bring people of low income to the table."

Good luck doing that, considering how many of them didn't even bother to take full advantage of the education that other people pay for: 40% of adult TANF beneficiaries didn't finish high school, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, and 15% have nine or fewer years of education.

And no one can say with a straight face that we're not doing enough at the school level. At some CPS schools, we're spending $15K-$17K per student, and districtwide, 39% of students get free or reduced meals. To solve this problem, the people who advocate more social spending are instead going to have to open their homes to people in poverty so they can work with those individuals and families on a 24/7 basis to turn them into productive, responsible citizens.

(Report Comment)
Glyn Coakley August 12, 2011 | 2:49 p.m.

The latest data we could find from the Census indicates approximately 61 percent of those below the poverty line were white. The total included those who marked multiple ethnicities on their survey.

We added this info to the article at the relevant location. Thanks again for pointing that out!

Glyn Coakley

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock August 15, 2011 | 1:14 a.m.

Glyn were you able to find out if she used the USDA census as a baseline for defining poverty? If so I do think a follow up arltle that refers to the link that I posted above would be a good with her thoughts on USDA definition of poverty. In fact it would be interesting to know how many people elected in office understand what the USDA uses and if they agree with the standards set. I mean elected officials cast votes on these numbers. If they don't know what the numbers really represent then they likly voted on millions for programs that were not needed. We could use the money to help people who really are in need.

(Report Comment)

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