A Wealth of Whammies for Youth in Poverty

It is unjust enough that scores of young people in the United States are denied basic human rights; that even in a country which paints itself as a global model of human rights, kids go without food, safe and affordable housing, equitable schooling opportunities, and healthcare. Heck, in a country with the level of resources the U.S. has, the very existence of homelessness, hunger, and poverty in the face of growing corporate profits is inexcusable. In this way, the U.S. is the very definition of systemic classism: a country in which poverty rates, income inequality, and corporate profits often grow simultaneously.

What’s worse, though, is that poor youth bear the brunt of this injustice. They are denied opportunity themselves, piled, as they often are, into over-crowded and under-resourced schools in which they are offered less rigorous curricula and pedagogies and more skilling and drilling than their wealthier counterparts. But they also carry the burden of their families’ disenfranchisement, suffering society’s refusal to provide their parents or guardians with living wage work or decent healthcare. It’s a sort of double-whammy of economic injustice.

Make that a triple-whammy. Because even while poor kids and their families suffer these injustices, they are blamed, not only for their own poverty, but for the very economic conditions that press upon them most vigorously. It’s been maddening to watch Reagan’s “welfare queen” rhetoric reappear in the midst of the economic crisis (as if the economy hasn’t always been in crisis from the perspective of poor people) in a new “entitlement class” discourse. Both terms serve the same purpose: to deflect collective attention from gross economic injustices driven largely by corporate greed and to aim it, instead, at those people with the least amount of power to popularize a counter-narrative. But, what’s more, it’s been horrifying to observe mass compliance with this deflection. The result: Republicans return to office en masse, where they no doubt will attempt to extend Bush’s tax cuts (read: welfare) for the wealthy while continuing to kill those social programs meant to aid poor families. Classic deficit ideology in motion.

Symptoms and scars from this compliance abound. For example, I have watched in utter disbelief as those once infuriated to action by Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol’s tome describing the proverbial shafting of poor students in the form of school funding inequities, similarly embrace Ruby Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty, a book which is, itself, both regression and shaft. The former forced us to take on systemic injustice against youth head-on, identifying the “problem” to be solved as existing within an unjust system, as one pressing upon our country’s most disenfranchised families. The latter gave us an “out”; it permitted us to ignore injustice altogether and to imagine ways we might redress poverty by fixing poor people rather than by fixing that which necessitates the existence of poor people in the wealthiest country in the world.

At last count, Payne and her stable of trainers have found their ways into upwards of 70% of school districts in the U.S., making millions of dollars a year by telling us how badly poor kids need to learn to act like middle class kids, while federal education policy continues to demonize poor students (as well as students of color and ELL students) and the teachers who teach them. Ugh. Make that a quadruple whammy.

Meanwhile, in those same schools, the very students who are denied opportunity because they are poor simultaneously are learning the Great Lie: that the U.S. is a meritocracy, that they can be Oprah Winfrey or Bill Gates if they just work hard enough. If they just work hard enough. This is a set-up. Because, on average, it makes no difference at all how hard poor kids work. Some will find their ways into higher socioeconomic brackets than their families, but a vast majority of them won’t. And it’s not a matter of merit. Not mostly, at least.

People often ask me what I propose to do about all of this. It’s a fair question, I suppose, although I think the eagerness for practical solutions even when we don’t fully understand the problem is what leads us down the Ruby Payne path. If we find ourselves committed to understand and then act, I have found a few reflection-and-action steps to be a good place to begin.

First we should ask ourselves, Why are poor people poor? In a capitalistic and classist society, social conditions exist because somebody profits from them. Who profits from poverty?

Secondly, we should ask ourselves, with the previous question in mind, What were we socialized to believe about why poor people are poor? Part of understanding a problem, after all, is in understanding how we are encouraged to misunderstand it and, of course, to misunderstand who profits from our misunderstanding.

Thirdly, we should resist the temptation of deficit ideology, which locates the problem of poverty within supposed deficiencies of poor communities rather than in that which disenfranchises poor communities. This also means rejecting solutions to classism aimed at youth (and adults) that are meant to fix poor people rather than fixing economic injustice. (And who, by the way, profits from deficit ideology?)

Fourthly, we must realize that fixing classism means fixing economic injustices and that this requires attention to systemic concerns. The worst classism is not peer ridicule or biased media, although certainly these contribute to a larger process of hierarchy-maintenance. The hierarchy won’t crash with the mitigation of teasing or even with more programs to feed, clothe, and house poor people (as important as these programs are). So rather than focusing on mitigating classism or sustaining poor kids in poverty, fight the conditions that necessitate or recycle poverty, such as the scarcity of living wage jobs, the dissolution of labor unions, the neoliberal shift of welfare from the poor to the corporate elite, and the influence of corporate lobbies on local, state and federal policy. I know these actions sound big, so connect with groups, like United for a Fair Economy, which already are organizing around economic justice and taking on those who profit from these conditions.

It’s a long road—social reform. So let’s commit, at the very least, to not making it longer with diversions.


Paul Gorski is an assistant professor of Integrative Studies in George Mason University’s New Century College, where he teaches classes on class and poverty, educational equity, and environmental justice. He created and continues to maintain the Multicultural Pavilion, a Web site focused on critical multicultural education. He has published three books and more than 35 articles in publications such as Educational Leadership, Equity and Excellence in Education, Rethinking Schools, Teaching and Teacher Education, Teachers College Record, and Teaching Tolerance.

12 Responses

  1. CP

    Isn’t Ruby Payne the “education guru” that criminalizes poor students and communities? I seem remember as a classroom volunteer running across a book that all the teachers in our elementary school (a “title I school”) were required to read. I thought from the cover, ‘oh neato’ until I opened it up and saw things like “gateway behaviors” outlining how a poor student is most prone to criminal behavior because he has poor classroom discipline, etc. It went south from there. I was horrified and even more so when I complained about the book being used as a guidance tool for our students because of the erroneous claims and perverse criminalization of poor kids. The response, “well, something has to be done about this being the only Title I school in the district. This neighborhood is where the criminal element is from. We have to do something.”

    Quite an indictment on the most intimate, nicest elementary school in the district from the parents POV. Crime stats from the city PD show that our neighborhood is actually one of the safest and lowest crime area in town, and the idea of gateway behavior sounds like the long debunked gateway drug myth. (No surprise local administrators and a few teachers wailed over the cancellation of local DARE programs). Mostly what I saw in terms of discipline was just the wrong approach with kids from the administration. After being suspended four times in Kindergarten, I happened to see his file in the principal’s office. My Aspie student was classified a “child at risk for criminal outcomes”–he has Asperger’s, for crying out loud. Suspending him does nothing but keep him from an education. Our family was actually put on a “watch list” for “Crime prone families” because I was a stay at home dad (it actually said that in the file!) and because women aren’t paid the same as men, our family struggled financially and we didn’t hide it like we were apparently supposed to. Plus we didn’t lie down and take it when our son was denied a 504 and prior to every suspension from school. If we’d have been able to afford the lawyer who told us we had a perfect case, but didn’t take contingency cases, we might have had a different experience. What really brought this book’s use by the admins and faculty home was after a few years when our son had a set of teachers who felt the book was trash. What a difference in success for our son and their approach towards him. Zero “discipline issues” while in the first two years his experience in the teacher who was key in bringing the book to the administration was six suspensions in Kindergarten and first grade. Nothing like direct lived experience to demo the impact of the owning class myths about “poverty.”

    So if Ruby Payne is indeed the same dolt as the author of that book our former school used, it’s no wonder the impact on our lives was so terrible and so vastly different when teachers refused to apply the author’s principles.

  2. Silvia Giebitz

    The ghetto impresses a deep scar not only in students of litlle resources but on teachers as well because they feel permanently under preasure of having to perform with litlle and no means.I know very well about children who come to school with a bite for more than 8 hours and expect also to “behave” for working in East Oakland,CA . No materials, no food, no hope for teachers and students are the class condemnations that the ruling class imposses on the population without empathy or understanding. The rich and the ones who arrive in high positions due to a fierce ambition, have no vision.I do not think that only the material resources are poorly distributed. There is a total lack of spiritual vision to recognize that we are a unity, in spite of the divisions of class and that the rich won’t have anybody to explode because they are depleating the country with their selfishness.

  3. Yes, CP. That’s her. And that overpaid poverty pimp just bilked the Erie, PA school district for money our community couldn’t afford to throw down the toilet. I am furious about that. Hell, I never got to make it out of poverty despite getting an education because I had to walk around with visibly decayed and missing teeth throughout my 20’s and 30’s due to poverty and a lack of access to health and dental care. I wasn’t even able to afford an upper denture until I was 40…long after I needed dental care so I could look normal and have a chance for a job so that maybe I could have had something resembling a nice life. Now at age 43, I am “too old” and have too big of an employment gap. But I am determined not to have my hard-earned education (that came with a steep college loan debt) be for nothing: I have written and self-published a book demolishing the “culture of poverty” claptrap and I decimated Ruby Payne’s “scholarship.” Poverty expert my ass. She’s no more a poverty expert than I am a Nobel Laureate!

    Jacqueline S. Homan,
    Author: Classism For Dimwits
    Divine Right: The Truth is a Lie

  4. CP

    And yesterday, Kate O’Beirne, MSNBC pundit and editor of the National Review ,speaking at the Hudson institute added her classist bullying to the mix, critiquing school lunch/breakfast programs:

    Kate O’Beirne: “The federal school lunch program, and now breakfast program, and I guess in Washington, D.C., dinner program, are pretty close to being sacred cows. Broad bipartisan support. And if we’re going to ask more of ourselves, my question is, what poor excuse for a parent can’t rustle up a bowl of cereal and a banana? I just don’t get why millions of schoolchildren qualify for school breakfasts, unless we have a major widespread problem with child neglect. You know, I mean, if that many parents are incapable of pulling together a bowl of cereal and a banana, then we have problems that are way bigger than—that problem can’t be solved with a school breakfast, because we have parents who are just criminally—criminally negligent with respect to raising children.”

    Yay, the uppers once more dissing the lowers because they just don’t get it.

    1. Jo-Ann Spaziani

      I am a school nurse in an alternative school with 90% of our students on free or reduced breakfast and lunch. With that being said, I can tell you that the waste I see is enormous. The students complain about the food, but take it anyway and throw most of it away. The amount of milk, juice and food that is discarded is costing the district and the tax payers. Are these students truly living in poverty, and if so, why are they throwing away food and milk? We continue to reach out to those with less resources through education regarding nutrition, exercise, and healthy lifestyles, but at whose expense. I also see the dental neglect and the physical neglect of many of the students in our district. We implement school dental programs, nutrition programs and combine with the community for health care, but there is a tremendous amount of parents who do not take advantage of these opportunities. The dentist and hygienist have said that, “if we treat one student, it is worth coming out to the school.” Like I said, we are doing our part, but the parents are not cooperating even when we accommodate the services in the school setting. What does that say about those in poverty? Is Ruby Payne correct in saying we truly do not understand the class of poverty. Are we, in our own way, enabling those in poverty to rely on us to “fix” their situation. Teachers are trained to educate on an equal basis and students are expected to follow the rules of academia to become independent, successful adults. Where has it gone wrong?

  5. Nah CP, I don’t think the uppers are “dissing the lowers because they just don’t get it”; quite the contrary. They DO get it. They know that the entire linchpin of capitalism is unearned privilege and oppression. But they cannot allow the majority of this country to believe that because that would undermine the whole patriarchal capitalist social order.

    They “diss” those of us in poverty with a deliberately dishonest propaganda machine because they HATE us. And most of the middle class hates us too. Want proof?

    Amidst the worst economic crisis (caused by capitalism), the politically active “progressive” middle class is mobilizing to enact a policy of banning soda-pop as an allowable food purchase with food stamps. This is billed as middle class “caring” about us lowly “uneducated” poors and imposing such restrictions “for our own good.” Yet they uttered not a single peep about the fact that many Costco’s, Safeway’s, and Whole Foods co-ops across the US refuse to accept food stamps, which would be of enormous healthy dietary benefit for those of us in the underclass who have been totally economically excluded and socially marginalized.


    When I confronted several middle class “progressives” about this in a debate on Alternet about this in a discussion about “educating the poor on healthy eating habits” and restricting unhealthy beverages by force of law and public policy, the response I got was: “well, these other problems you cite are too much for us to take on but restricting food stamp usage is easier.” If the middle class can mobilize civic leaders and politicians and whip up a “public health” frenzy over food stamp clients’ purchase of soda, then they can unleash with equal or greater fervor a push for food stamps to be accepted by stores that sell healthy foods (lean red meats, organic fresh produce, etc.) at an affordable price in bulk. The reason is that the middle class really hate poor people and don’t want us to be able to shop at “their” stores. The middle class wears their healthy cuisine and gym club memberships like the latest expensive and trendy fashion accessory as proof and validation of their status.

    The upper class also deliberately hurts the poor. In post-deregulation America, cities like Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia and Erie sustain hundreds of deaths each winter that are all the direct result of utility shut-offs stemming from unaffordable rates, lack of living wage jobs, lack of income, and lack of enough help (and LIHEAP was just cut again by almost $2 billion in 2010 after being cut by $1.6 billion in 2006). The Democrat legislators and governor of Michigan instead bowed to the demands of utility monopoly, DTE Energy, by enacting tough laws against “utility theft” — elevating the crime of having an illegal hookup to a felony offense.

    Meanwhile, DTE spent four times as much buying helicopters (and hiring pilots) to hunt down “energy thieves” in desperately poor areas than they would have spent in helping the poor by lowering their unaffordable rates and changing their termination policies so that the poorest of the poor don’t have to die from hypothermia, or from a residential fire caused by unsafe alternative heating devices in desperate attempts to avoid freezing to death.

    If this were strictly a greed issue rather than a hate-the-poor issue, DTE executives would have opted to take the less expensive route which would have saved the lives of hundreds of poor people. But they didn’t. These “malefactors of great wealth” acted very deliberately, and with the full intent of killing the poor and criminalizing those who are forced out of desperation to take dangerous measures in order to try to survive.

    Conclusion: The middle and upper classes really hate the poor and intentionally enact policies that deny us even the chance to live. Being poor all my life because of never getting a chance for anything no matter how hard I tried, I think I know a hell of a lot more about poverty and the dynamics of classism than any privileged Ivy League PhD’d “poverty expert” who spouts deficit theory crapola that is called “objective scholarship” and accorded all the respect in the world — whereas my 43 years of lifelong experience in crushing poverty with no hope and no end in sight is invalidated and dismissed as “unimportant” because what the hell could *I* possibly know being a poor “nobody” for whom a grad school education was economically out of reach for me. Lacking a PhD automatically deprives me of the status of “poverty expert.”

    And we all know which socio-economic classes established and collaborated in promoting and perpetuating unaffordable credentialism to protect their economic turf from the low class “rabble”, don’t we?


  6. [Recap from Paul Gorski’s article]: “People often ask me what I propose to do about all of this. It’s a fair question, I suppose, although I think the eagerness for practical solutions even when we don’t fully understand the problem is what leads us down the Ruby Payne path. If we find ourselves committed to understand and then act, I have found a few reflection-and-action steps to be a good place to begin.”

    OK. Good point to address here. What led us down the Ruby Payne path is the same thing that led us down the Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan path and the “Red Scare” of McCarthyism: the acceptance of capitalism as the best thing since toast.

    By doing that, we accept all of capitalism’s inherent social ills and injustices and agree that the poor are children of a lesser god who are not worthy of real material life-sustaining help after having been economically excluded and socially marginalized and kept so far down that they just can’t “help themselves.” Capitalism developed out of the ideological polygamous marriage of theology, patriarchal mercantilism, imperialism, and colonialism. It’s not an ethic; it’s a process with structurally determined outcomes.

    Capitalism works like a Ponzi scheme. If we don’t accept that, then there’s no point in discussing solutions for helping those of us surly and bitter poors who are stuck at the very bottom with no hope and no end in sight — those of us who cannot sell their labor in the market and who serve as a surplus “reserve army of labor”; despite having made superhuman efforts and having miraculously managed to do “all the right things”, like go into steep student loan debt for Bachelor degrees from backwater state universities.

  7. Maggie


    Are you familiar with Eric Jensen’s book “Teaching with Poverty in Mind”? A group of teachers asked whether or not I thought it would be a worthy book-study selection as they work to better their teaching practice. I haven’t read it — what I’m able to locate on the web makes me leery, but perhaps I’m jumping to conclusions. If you have experience with this text, I’d appreciate knowing your thoughts.


  8. Raisa Ignatieva

    “Why are poor people poor? In a capitalistic and classist society, social conditions exist because somebody profits from them. Who profits from poverty?”*** Those who write and teach about poverty profit from poverty, too. We are part of the system.
    While I agree that Ruby Payne “permitted us to ignore injustice altogether and to imagine ways we might redress poverty by fixing poor people,” I would like to hear more about what you can offer classroom teachers to deal with all the issues they are facing every day? I think it is too much to ask them to fix “that which necessitates the existence of poor people in the wealthiest country in the world.” I can understand why many teachers find Ruby Payne appealing. She offers teachers 10 easy steps to deal with poverty in the classroom. How can you beat that? I like her book. Students so easily buy into everything she says. Her book is excellent for teaching about the dangers of essentializing.

    1. Paul C. Gorski

      Hi Raisa,

      I have written several articles and done workshops all over the country on what teachers can do. Here are a couple of those articles:


      When I work with teachers, I always talk about considering one’s “sphere of influence.” There are things each of us can and cannot control. The idea is to advocate for equity and justice in our spheres of influence then, perhaps, expanding those spheres. Of course, a lot of what I think we, as educators, can do, is about deepening our understandings, which might not seem “pragmatic”; however, my experience is that all the pragmatic strategies in the world don’t help if I have a deficit view of my students–if I think they are poor because of their “culture.”

      Yes, her book is good for teaching about the dangers of essentializing. I use pieces from her book to do that, especially the “quiz” about surviving in different class groups. Very interesting. Also the scenarios of the different poor families are interesting to look both at how she essentializes by class and race (despite the fact that she claims that the book is not about race).

      Payne is a brilliant businesswoman. She sells people the stereotypes they already have in a Fox News sort of way. I don’t think Payne is the problem. I think she’s a symptom of the problem, which is that the dominant way in which we, in education, talk about class and poverty more generally is based on a “culture of poverty” model that was rejected as inaccurate in the 1960s. (Did you know that the term “blame the victim” was coined in response to the “culture of poverty” model in the 1960s?)

      I appreciate your point: We are all part of the system. I suppose the distinction might be between those whose work supports or challenges hegemony.


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