Saturday, September 16, 2006

For one of the Teacher Corps graduate school classes we were asked to read A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D. I usually keep a personal policy of avoiding books by an author who insists on adding the "Ph.D." to the end of their name, as I am commonly bothered by individuals who find it necessary to continually remind those around them that they have their doctorate. Payne, Ph.D.'s photograph on the back of the book was equally disconcerting: her red blazer and feathered colored hair were both disturbingly premeditated and the entire composition was meticulously airbrushed. Alas, this reading was required. So, Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D., here I come...

Like many other sociological examinations, Payne, Ph.D.'s book tries to get the reader to imagine what it would be like to live in poverty. So, the book is basically all about perspective or, more specifically, how an individual's perspective alters how they relate to the world. To emphasize this point, Payne, Ph.D. develops lists of "the Hidden Rules for each Socioeconomic Class." For example, one of the lower class rules is, "do you know which rummage sales have the best values?"; a middle class rule asked, "do you know how to get your children onto the best soccer and basketball teams?"; and a upper class rule asked, "do you know how to hire the proper designer to plan your home's holiday decorations?" While these lists are not an exact science (I am not so sure if poor people value their family any less than their wealthy counterparts), they certainly got me thinking about how each class has their own secret world. This secret world allows them to conceptualize not only those who share their economic status, but also those who are above and below them in status and wealth. In this sense, the class system in the United States is much more defined than I ever thought it was; in more ways than I can envision off the top of my head, one can relate it to India's caste system.

Another thing that surprised me was the degree to which debt is a self-fulfilling prophecy. "Spiraling debt" sounds like a catchphrase Suze Orman would use to sell her new financial self-help book, but Payne, Ph.D. actually makes it a feasible framework. Basically, Payne, Ph.D. outlines the ways in which debt accumulates - both slowly and quickly - until those who are in debt cannot climb out of their hole. It made me think of that old math question - would you rather a $25,000 cheque on the first of the month, or to get a 1 cent cheque on the first day of the month and then have your cheque double each day until the 30th of the month. It's amazing how fast the money (or the lack of it) compiles.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book, however, was the lower class' complete lack of support systems. About a month ago, I posted an entry on this site that examined how much my friends and family had helped me over the past few months, especially since I am so far away from home. I would go insane - or worse - without them. Payne, Ph.D. clearly shows that poor individuals are often at a complete lack for familial support. More than any other aspect of poverty, this is what would kill me.


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