Families in generational poverty form their own culture

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Stacy Vogel
Monday, August 25, 2008

Poverty is all Joanne has ever known. She grew up in poverty, and now her children are growing up in it as she struggles to raise them alone.

Life can get bleak for Joanne, but she tries to dwell on the positive. She values entertainment and loves to watch TV and listen to music. Her friends like her because she makes them laugh with her funny stories. Her children have picked up on this trait, and they like to clown, shouting to be heard over the TV and each other.

Joanne doesn’t plan for the future. Why bother? It’s not in her control. When she gets money, she spends it quickly on flashy new shoes for her kids or a night on the town for herself.

Although Joanne is fictional, her family is typical of many in generational poverty, writes Ruby Payne, a speaker and author who studies economic classes.

Payne defines generational poverty as families who have lived in poverty for at least two generations, meaning children of parents in poverty grow up to live in poverty themselves. By contrast, families in situational poverty have fallen into poverty because of a traumatic event such as illness or divorce.

She writes families in generational poverty form their own culture with different values, habits and lifestyles from families in the middle class.

Payne’s work is controversial because it generalizes large groups of people, but Kathie Koebler, a kindergarten teacher at Madison Elementary School in Janesville, said Payne’s theories ring true in her classroom.

Here are characteristics of generational poverty that Payne outlines in the book “A Framework for Understanding Poverty”:

-- Background noise.

The TV is almost always on, and conversations tend to be noisy, with several people talking at once.

This can cause children to be noisy and disruptive in the classroom, Koebler said.

-- Emphasis on entertainment.

“When one can merely survive, then the respite from survival is important,” Payne writes.

Families in poverty value the ability to entertain, tell stories and have a sense of humor.

-- Casual language.

Families in generational poverty have an “oral-language tradition,” meaning they might not know how to speak or write formally.

Often, children of poverty lack language skills needed for school, Koebler said. Their grammar or vocabulary is poor, and no one at home corrects them, she said.

-- Survival orientation.

People who are barely getting by talk about people and relationships, not abstract or academic topics. A job is about making enough money to survive, not building a career.

-- Belief in fate.

Many people in poverty believe destiny and fate control their lives, and they might not think they have a choice about what happens in their lives.


“Time occurs only in the present,” Payne writes. “The future does not exist except as a word.”

Life is so uncertain for many families in poverty that they don’t see anything as everyday, even work or school, Koebler said. As a result, children miss a lot of school.

A focus on the present also means families in poverty often don’t save for the future, Koebler said. If a parent receives money, he or she might spend it right away on clothes or entertainment and then not have enough money the next week for a field trip or school supplies.

-- Disorganization and disorder.

People in poverty often don’t have the tools to organize their lives, such as planners and files. Their homes are often cluttered.

Teachers often find children leave notes and homework in their backpacks because there’s no safe place to put them at home, Koebler said. The students often lose library books, and they lose their library privileges as a result, she said.

-- Live in the moment.

“Being proactive, setting goals and planning ahead are not a part of generational poverty,” Payne writes. “Most of what occurs is reactive and in the moment.”

Who is Ruby Payne?

Ruby Payne is an author and speaker who studies poverty and economic classes. Her book “A Framework for Understanding Poverty” has sold more than 1 million copies, and she spends more than 150 days a year speaking to groups, according to her Web site.

Payne has been a teacher, principal, administrator and professional consultant since 1972. She first learned about poverty from her husband, who grew up poor, and then from her students. She has a doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies.

She often speaks to teachers looking for ways to help students in poverty achieve, and many of those teachers say she has helped them understand their students better.

Still, Payne has plenty of critics. Some argue her characterizations of the “culture of poverty” are bigoted, overly simplistic and harmful to relations between teachers and students. They charge she relies on anecdotes instead of facts.

But Payne argues her expertise comes from decades of experience. Her Web site, www.ahaprocess.com, touts her accessible style and relevant message.

Last updated: 9:56 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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