Here's a scary estimation. About 40% of the people who email me in response to my work on poverty and education are trying to convince me or themselves that "the culture of poverty" is real.
Here's an insight. The culture of poverty is not real. It was introduced as an idea in the early 1960s and debunked by pretty much everyone who studied poverty by the early 1970s. After that it was really only embraced by white politicians looking to justify policy initiatives that were hostile to people in poverty (and especially hostile to low-income African Americans) and by Ruby Payne.
This morning I received an email from an eager young Teach for America (TFA) applicant. For years TFA required applicants who had made it through the first round of reviews to read my article, The Myth of the Culture of Poverty. They no longer require it, but it remains listed on a resource page that applicants are invited to explore. In that article I peel apart the foundations of Ruby Payne's culture (or "mindsets") of poverty approach and the stereotypes on which it is built. Some of those stereotypes, it turns out, are truer of wealthy people than people in poverty, like a propensity for substance abuse, which pops up a few times in Payne's books. The young man had read Payne's A Framework for Understanding Poverty and my article and had grown somewhat confused by my analysis of the culture of poverty idea.
"I hope that you might have a few minutes to clear something up for me," he wrote. "I am applying for Teach for America and, for an interview, a resource page led me to your 2008 article 'The Myth of the 'Culture of Poverty.'"
He continued, "I once read [Ruby] Payne's book A Framework for Understanding Poverty. In that, I found her explanations of Generational Poverty helpful. Is this part of what you aim to combat as you expel the myths of the Culture of Poverty?"
He came across as quite earnest in his email. "I appreciate the positive implications of your article," he shared, "and would like to look into some of your references to learn more."
But his next line reflected a sentiment I come across all too often in conversations about how to approach poverty and education: "I am trying to balance both outlooks." Red flag.
When we're trying to learn about racism, we don't want a balanced perspective between a racial justice and a white supremacy view. The idea is to root out the latter with the former. When we're talking about sexual assault, we don't want to balance a feminist or womanist view with that of sexual assault apologists. So when it comes to poverty, the idea is not to "balance" Ruby Payne's deficit-laden culture of poverty view with other approaches, but instead to eliminate the oppressive view and to replace it with an equitable and just view. Of course the racial justice or womanist or economic justice view encompass a wide variety of approaches and frameworks. But the dialogue in any of these cases should never become one between the oppressive view and the just view; rather, the dialogue should be among different approaches for achieving the just view. It should not be a debate between a climate scientist and a climate change denier. It should be a discussion among climate scientists. The culture of poverty is, in essence, the white supremacy, the patriarchy, the heteronormativity, the climate change denial of poverty views.
To be clear, this is not a knock on the young man. He was reaching out, seeking a conversation, trying to hone his view. There is nothing more beautiful than that. Whereas I once would have seen his message as confirmation of the backward thinking on poverty that pervades conversations about education today, this morning I saw his message as an opportunity falling gently into my proverbial lap.
"I appreciate you reaching out about this," I replied.
There was a time that my strategy, when responding to this kind of email, was overly-cautious. I would try to step people through an understanding too carefully. It's another way we, in education, often demonstrate low expectations for future teachers. "Meet them where they are," we say, then never quite get to the part where we move them forward from where they are.
My approach today was more direct. High expectations. You can get this.
Let me be totally honest. If you found Payne’s work helpful and you intend to go into low-income schools through TFA, I would implore you to spend more time learning about poverty. That article actually was written to dispel the myths that Payne has pushed through her work, which is based on a set of assumptions that were rejected in the 1970s by people who study poverty. The underlying myth is that people are in poverty because of some culture or mindset problem in poor communities that is passed from generation to generation. That, in short, is complete nonsense.
My forebears were coalminers who worked 12 hour shifts in coal mines for generations. Was it supposed laziness or lack of concern about education that kept them poor? Or was it something else?
You also should know that people who study poverty (Payne doesn’t—she makes her living as a consultant and never has actually studied poverty) have analyzed her work and found that it is full of factual errors. So if what she wrote in that book rang true for you (as it does for a lot of readers), it’s really just evidence that you probably went into the book with misunderstandings and that Payne confirmed your misunderstandings. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. In the US we are socialized to misunderstand poverty—we’re socialized to understand it the way Payne explains it. That protects the interests of the wealthy, who don’t want you wondering whether poverty actually exists because opportunity and access are distributed unequally [to their benefit].
For a quick example of this, think about what you’re about to do. You’ll go through TFA, get 5 weeks of training, then be placed in a high-poverty school. Do you think any parent in a wealthy community, somebody with the economic sway to demand something different, would allow her or his child to be taught by somebody with 5 weeks of teacher training? Would policymakers allow that to happen? In the wealthiest schools and districts in the US a majority of teachers have graduate degrees in education.
The point, from an educational view, is that the economic achievement gap exists because low-income people have been cheated out of access to some of the most basic things to which other people have access: preventive healthcare, living wage jobs, paid leave, nutritious food, and, in the education world, experienced teachers, well-funded schools, well-resourced schools, higher-order pedagogies… So you should ask yourself why Payne doesn’t even mention these things in her book. And if you really want to challenge yourself then you should ask yourself why you read Payne's book and didn’t wonder why she didn’t mention any of these things…I know some of you are wondering why I didn't take TFA on more explicitly in my conversation with this young man. Maybe I should have. But I worry about being too prescriptive in how I respond to young people about these things. Here's a different window to look through, I imagine myself saying. I also worried that being more explicit about my TFA concerns would render the rest of the message less visible to somebody who is already well into the application process.
I walked away from my computer still feeling some concern, but also feeling grateful that the young man had the courage to ask some questions. And I felt satisfied that I did some effective and not overly-cautious nudging. I shared this sentiment at the end of my message:
"Best of luck to you with whatever you choose to do in the future. The fact that you’re asking these questions makes me excited for you."
I assume others of you are wondering whether I was too direct, whether I failed to meet this young man "where he is."
He wrote back not 30 minutes later: "I am pleased to have a new (and more hopeful, to be honest) perspective." An invitation, perhaps, to continue nudging on poverty, on TFA, on educational justice.
Not a bad morning.
Paul C. Gorski is the Founder of EdChange and an Associate Professor of Integrative Studies at George Mason University where he teaches in the Social Justice and Human Rights programs. For more of his writing visit the EdChange.org. For free resources on educational equity visit EdChange.org/multicultural. To contact Paul directly email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.