Using the Lens of Economic Class to Help Teachers Understand and Teach Students from Poverty: A Response

by Ruby K. Payne - May 17, 2009

This is a response by Dr. Ruby K. Payne, author of A Framework for Understanding Poverty, to “Miseducating Teachers about the Poor: A Critical Analysis of Ruby Payne’s Claims about Poverty” by Bomer et al. The lens of economic class is used to help teachers understand and teach students from poverty; Framework was never intended to be “an exhaustive tome on stratification in society”—whether that stratification pertains to race, gender, or ethnicity. The work is developed to build human capacity and assist with the intergenerational transfer of knowledge. Payne cites scholarly studies on multiple settings throughout the United States where her techniques have been implemented the past decade. She explains that “hidden rules,” a linchpin of her philosophy, are based on patterns—and all patterns have exceptions. Framework takes a cognitive approach to class based on “situated learning.” The work is at the micro level, not at the macro level of systems.

The article written by Bomer, Dworin, May, and Semingson (2008) provides a cohesive argument against my work on poverty. This is a study to which I would like to respond.

The research selected to refute my work tends to be narrow and contained within the theoretical constructs of social determinism, which is the theoretical frame of reference that all inequalities are based on system deficits and exploitation. In fact, Bomer et al. (2008) state:


Nowhere in her book does Payne state that poverty, rather than the poor, is the problem that must be addressed. She offers no perspective that people should hold elected officials accountable for the number of families in poverty, or the conditions in which people must live. … She does not connect the misfortunes of the poor to the fortunes of the middle class and wealthy by examining policies regarding housing, segregation, taxation, or public expenditures. She does not analyze the degree to which wealthy and middle-class families proactively structure advantage for their children at the expense of children of the less fortunate. (pp. 2524–2525)

No, I do not because that was not the purpose of A Framework for Understanding Poverty. Are systemic exploitation and gender and racial issues real? Yes, they are. The purpose of the book, however, was not to talk about race or gender or systems of exploitation, it was to use the lens of economic class to understand and teach students in the classroom. Further, the book’s purpose was to build human capability and knowledge bases. In the exploitation work, researchers talk about privilege as access to money or social structures. Privilege is also about knowledge bases. In an Australian study, which followed 8,556 children for 14 years, the researchers found they could predict with reasonable accuracy the verbal reasoning scores of 14-year-olds based on the maternal grandfather’s occupation (Najman et al., 2004). This stunning statistic points to intergenerational transfer of knowledge, a huge piece of privilege. Where does one get that knowledge if one’s parents don’t have it? Public school.

Further, the authors apply the criticism of “deficit model” to my work and define it using Valencia. Deficit model is terminology used in social determinism to identify the language used by a member of the dominant culture. As Valencia (as cited in Bomer et al., 2008, p. 2523) states: “Deficit thinking is a person-centered explanation of school failure among individuals linked to group membership … [and] is largely based on imputation and little documentation.” The irony of this is that the “deficit model” is a theoretical model in itself that has little scientific research to support it. I can say that the glass is half full of water or half empty. Regardless of the language I assign to it, the level of water in the glass does not change. So to assign the label “deficit model” is simply a theoretical construct.

When the “deficit model” is assigned to Framework, on the assumption that my work is oppressive because it requires that people in poverty adapt to the middle-class environment or assimilate into it, I respond that ignorance is a brutal form of oppression. As suggested above, public schools are now the main mechanism by which most young people in poverty are educated. Therefore, this is where Framework focuses its attention. To negotiate or adapt to an environment does not mean one has assimilated into it or must assimilate. In fact, I frequently tout the strengths of people in poverty: freedom, spontaneity, storytelling and entertainment abilities, problem-solving skills, loyalty to friends, etc. In 2000 I co-authored (with Dr. Paul Slocumb) a book called Removing the Mask: Giftedness in Poverty. Its intent was to sensitize educators to the often overlooked talents of children from poverty.

Indeed, my emphasis in Framework and all my speaking and writing is an “additive” approach stating that, in order to survive, one must be able to negotiate the environment where he or she is. To survive in poverty one must focus most of one’s energy and problem-solving skills on immediate concrete problems: cars that break down; housing that is crowded, unsafe, and too costly; low-paying jobs that come and go; dangerous neighborhoods; trying to get health care. Living in the tyranny of the moment requires that one be nonverbal, sensory, and reactive.

Bomer et al. (2008) go on to say that I don’t have research to support what I say. Yet in the very beginning of the book I highlight the 24 years I spent living among the poor and several years among the wealthy. Additionally, I spent three and a half months in Haiti studying poverty there. Regarding the educational validity of my methods, Dr. William Swan of the University of Georgia has conducted numerous studies on the efficacy of the instructional designs I have developed and that have been implemented in a wide variety of educational settings throughout the United States. For specifics, see the aha! Process website at

Two issues in particular are incorrect in the critique by Bomer et al. (2008). First, the authors assert that poor children have the same language skills that children in middle class have. Hart and Risley (1995) put tape recorders in homes by economic class and recorded the language that children have access to between the ages of 1 and 3. They found that a 3-year-old in a professional household has a larger vocabulary than an adult in a welfare household. In fact, by age 4, children in professional households had heard 45 million words compared with 13 million words in welfare households. Second, Bomer et al. state that “the notion that people ‘cannot plan’ is an indefensible assertion of a cognitive deficit” (p. 2519). In a study released in 2008 using EEG scans with poor and middle-class children, the researchers found that the prefrontal cortex of the brain (executive function) in poor children was undeveloped and resembled the brains of adults who have had strokes. The executive function of the brain handles impulse control, planning, and working memory (Kishiyama, Boyce, Jimenez, Perry, & Knight, in press, p. 1). The researchers went on to state that it is remediable, but there must be direct intervention.

Furthermore, Bomer et al. (2008) use a methodology called “truth claims” to refute a number of statements in Framework. For example, in the quiz it says, “I know which grocery stores’ garbage bins can be accessed for thrown-away food.” The truth claim is “In order to survive in poverty, one must know which grocery stores’ garbage bins can be accessed for thrown-away food.” I did not say that. One can survive in poverty without knowing that. So to turn a statement from a knowledge analysis to a causal/survival statement appears to be a twist of logic. The exercise of “truth claims” is analogous to the quantitative analysts on Wall Street who formulated computer programs for derivatives based on a constructed formula. (This was a major factor in bringing down the economic system because the formula had no basis in reality.) Extrapolated formulas are just that—extrapolated. Bomer et al. state, “We chose this program because it allowed flexibility in coding and grouping the data and permitted us to view our data as an outline, a map, a tree diagram, or as a hierarchy” (p. 2502). This is to convolute the information in the book. If I had wanted to present it that way, I would have done so. The information is not hierarchical.

Hidden rules, which Bomer et al. spend much time debating, are based on patterns, and that is clearly stated in Framework’s introduction. Patterns have exceptions. According to brain research, the brain processes in patterns. The argument is that patterns lead to stereotypes. Stereotyping occurs when the patterns of a group are applied to everyone in a group. Before I spoke in China, my hosts gave me a big book about the dos and don’ts in that country. These were simply hidden rules. I knew they were patterns, but they were educating me about those patterns so that I would understand them when I encountered them and would not embarrass myself or my hosts. The brain can use informed or uninformed patterns, but it will process in patterns. In addition, Bomer et al. do not acknowledge the distinctions between “generational” and “situational” poverty used in the book. The patterns and thinking are different, just as is the case between “new money” and “old money.”

Researchers identify four major causes of poverty: individual choices, lack of access to resources in the community, exploitation, and economic and political systems. Yet another exists, and it is the “marriage” that occurs between the demands of the economic environment and the thinking patterns that result from that marriage. Framework is a cognitive approach to class based on Lave and Wenger’s (1991) theoretical model called “situated learning.” Class, like race, is first experienced at a very personal level, and that experience impacts thinking and belief systems. The book is intended to help teachers understand basic patterns in generational poverty so that they know the “situated environment” of that reality.

The book was never meant to be an exhaustive tome on stratification in society. I wrote it simply so that it would foster basic understanding, which is what most practitioners want. James Clerk Maxwell (as cited in Norretranders, 1991), the physicist who achieved the “second grand unification” in physics, says that, “one has to begin with a simplification and reduction of the results of previous investigations to a form in which the mind can grasp them” (p. 5).

Bomer et al. (2008) talk about the success of Framework and attribute it to the bias of the white middle-class teachers. I suspect that the authors never have been in an audience where a participant comes up in tears and says, “I finally understand [my mother, or my husband, or my father, or my brother]. Thank you for the gift.” I also surmise that they have never had a participant come up and say, “It totally changed my teaching. I will never judge my students the way I have been doing. I just didn’t understand. I would do the same thing my students do.” By making that accusation against middle-class teachers, the authors demean the very individuals who entered the profession for noble reasons and are faced with students they simply do not understand.

In closing, I would note that the first generation to become college educated in any family generally goes into teaching or some kind of government work. When I ask audiences of educators to raise their hands if they are the first generation in their family to be college-educated, usually two thirds raise their hands. Many of them are from situational poverty or working-class backgrounds and lived in neighborhoods where there was also generational poverty. A reason many educators buy into A Framework for Understanding Poverty is because so many of them or their parents have their roots in poverty. They understand that the information is real and valid.


Bomer, R., Dworin, J. E., May, L., & Semingson, P. (2008). Miseducating teachers about the poor: A critical analysis of Ruby Payne’s claims about poverty. Teachers College Record, 110, 2497–2531.

Farah, M. J., Shera, D. M., Savage, J. H., Betancourt, L., Giannetta, J. M., Brodsky, N. L., et al. (2006). Childhood poverty: Specific associations with neurocognitive development. Brain Research, 1110(1), 166–174.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Kishiyama, M. M., Boyce, W. T., Jimenez, A. M., Perry, L. M., & Knight, R. T. (in press). Socioeconomic disparities affect prefrontal function in children. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. Available from


Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Najman, J. M., Aird, R., Bor, W., O’Callaghan, M., Williams, G., & Shuttlewood, G. (2004). The generational transmission of socioeconomic inequalities in child cognitive development and emotional health. Social Science and Medicine, 58, 1147–1158.

Norretranders, T. (1991). The user illusion: Cutting consciousness down to size. New York: Penguin.

Payne, R. K. (2005). A framework for understanding poverty (4th rev. ed.). Highlands, TX: aha! Process.

Slocumb, P. D., & Payne, R. K. (2000). Removing the mask: Giftedness in poverty. Highlands, TX: aha! Process.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 17, 2009 ID Number: 15629, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 4:26:40 AM

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