December 18

Impact of Rules: Keeping the People Trapped in Poverty

Like last week, I enter ground where I don’t feel fully confident that I have the right language to describe this topic. I happily admit I’m in my own learning curve on how to present and understand poverty. So with your patience and understanding, I want to continue our exploration of Ruby Payne’s Hidden Rules of Poverty. As a reminder, here is a summary of this concept.


One of the powerful conclusions of Bridges out of Poverty and A Framework for Understanding Poverty is that people in poverty most often remain in poverty because they live by a different set of rules than those that guide the middle class. Here is the logic as I understand it:

  • There are rules people need to follow to survive poverty, as well as the middle and upper classes
  • The better one masters these rules, the better they are able to thrive or survive in their class
  • To move up classes, one must not only succeed within the rules of their own class, but learn and follow the rules of the class they aspire to enter
  • Service providers should understand the rules of poverty in order to meet clients on the clients’ terms and reality
  • Service providers should help client learn the middle class rules so that they can succeed in middle class dominated systems including educational and employment

What I like about Payne’s approach is that it gives us a model to address some of the needs of those in poverty within the realities of the current systematic problems that cause poverty. This cognitive behavioral understanding that Payne puts forth attempts to help adjust thinking and behaviors in a way that increases economic and social success. My struggle, however, is that her approach can seem to put the “culture of poverty” she describes in a negative context.

My issues with Payne relate to my frustration with many conservative economists. Blame is too easily placed on the individual or their behavior. This can result in a negative view of certain cultures experiencing higher rates of poverty, many of which include ethnic, racial, religious, and cultural minorities. It isn’t often recognized that people find themselves in poverty through no fault of their own. Most people experiencing poverty do so because of policies that keep certain minority groups at an extreme disadvantage when compared to the opportunities available to the majority (we’ll talk more about this in upcoming posts).

My other struggle is that I find great value, joy, and power in communities that the term “culture of poverty” seems to disparage. While any community has it challenges, many of these diverse cultures have norms and values which we do not want to lose by overemphasizing middle class values. While the American Melting Pot concept sounds great in theory – and who doesn’t love a good Schoolhouse Rock video?  We can’t actually just throw everyone in a pot and watch it magically become something homogenous that we call America.

I feel that, as helpers, we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. The rock is a system, which we are a part of, that systematically discriminates against the poor, while making the rich richer. The hard place is that many of our roles involve helping clients succeed in this reality. So, we fight against a discriminatory system while also trying to help those in the system survive and improve their economic status. While I have a hard time finding universal application for Payne’s rule of poverty, there is no doubt that our current system does have rules, and those rules are stacked against those in poverty.

Posted December 18, 2015 by Matt Bennett in category "Uncategorized


  1. By Sarah Stacy on

    It’s interesting how we can each read the same material and come away with different frustrations. I have frustrations with Payne’s descriptions, but I saw her explanation of the differences as just different, not negative. We have to understand the difference if we are going to help our clients bridge out of homelessness into housing. I don’t believe that Payne would attribute any blame or judgement in those who have experienced generational poverty. And these “rules” of the culture that exist for those experiencing poverty don’t apply to those who experience situational poverty. I am a middle-class person. I would carry my middle class culture and views to the streets if circumstances put me there.

    I think one of the important things that Payne addresses in A Framework for Understanding Poverty is that we as helpers need to remember that when we ask people to engage and change their economic status and to leave the streets, there is an element of culture that we are asking them to abandon.

  2. By Nadine Smet-Weiss on

    I am truly appreciating the opportunity to think about this issue. When I began my career in social service I did not have this framework or language to articulate my experience. As a middle class person, with some life experiences that also put me one foot in what Payne defines as the poverty culture, I viewed myself as a bridge. I felt as if I had some understanding of “both worlds” and could help people “make the journey” so to speak. What I did not expect was that I would meet many who did not seem to want to “make the journey.” I have since come to recognize that there are many reasons one might not want to ‘fit into’ what is really a badly broken system; though not flush in material things, we also cannot discount the risk of loss(es) that come with stepping out of poverty and into middle class culture – most significant, it seems to me, is the place of and potential impact upon relationships. I still see my role as serving as a bridge, but I believe/hope I have a much more compassionate understanding of the difficulties involved in making the journey.


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