We already know that poverty is a math problem. So, what else is it?

‘Hidden rules of class’ help the poor do more with less

Conclusion of a six-part series

The culture of poverty has some universal characteristics which transcend regional, rural-urban, and even national differences… There are remarkable similarities in family structure, interpersonal relations, time orientations, value systems, spending patterns, and the sense of community in lower-class settlements in London, Glasgow, Paris, Harlem, and Mexico City.  – Oscar Lewis

Generally, in America the notion [of hidden rules] is recognized for racial and ethnic groups, but not particularly for economic groups. – Ruby K. Payne

(MGN Online)

Oscar Lewis, the late American anthropologist, is perhaps best remembered for what he termed the “subculture of poverty” in 1959. He would go on to theorize that this subculture transcends ethnic and geographical boundaries, suggesting that “the culture of poverty is both an adaptation and a reaction of the poor classes to their marginal position in a class-stratified, highly individualistic, capitalist society.”

Lewis’s theories about the subculture of poverty would influence then-U.S. Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s controversial 1965 report The Negro Family: The Case for National Action as well as some elements of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Political scientist Michael Harrington, author of The Other America, also addressed the culture of poverty, but for Harrington the issue is related to the systematic oppression and exclusion of poor people from America and its institutions.

In recent years a number of other scholars have challenged the ideas of Lewis. However, this debate, regardless of which side one comes down on, has proven foundational for the work of educator and social class analyst Ruby K. Payne.

In her 1995 bestseller A Framework for Understanding Poverty, Payne describes what she calls the “hidden rules of class,” which she defines as “the unspoken cues and habits of a group.” She frequently references the writings of Lewis, Harrington, and American sociologist and C. Wright Mills. As was the case with each of these men, Payne’s research has been highly controversial and garnered harsh criticism from many in the world of academia.

Yet for the purposes of the final installment of this six-part series, I want to move beyond partisan or ideological bents and simply demonstrate how the hidden rules of class provide another aspect of what poverty is in America. Furthermore, while some scholars have argued that the “culture of poverty” or “the hidden rules of class” reflect the poor’s sense of helplessness, alienation and pessimism, I contend that a close examination of the hidden rules are in many cases reflective of the intelligence, character, and survival instincts of those living in poverty.

In presenting the hidden rules of class, Payne notes that most of these norms and social cues are “taken for granted by a particular class, which assumes they are a given for everyone.” In her text, she identifies 15 of the major hidden rules, which among other things focus on matters of possessions, money, food, clothing, time, education, destiny, language, worldview and love.

For example, those living in poverty see money as something to be used or spent. In contrast, middle-class rules view money as something to be managed, and the wealthy want to conserve and invest their money.

For the poor, when it comes to the issue of food, the most critical question is “Do we have enough?” The hidden rules of the middle class place a priority on the quality of food, while the wealthy are also interested in its presentation.

The hidden rules of wardrobe suggest that those in the lower class value clothing for its “individual style and expression of personality,” whereas the middle class prioritizes quality and the upper classes are interested in who the designer might be.

For people in poverty, the most important time is the present. Decisions are made with daily survival in mind. In contrast, the middle class sees the future as most important and the wealthy emphasize tradition and history.

Similarly, for the poor language is about survival as opposed to the middle class who use language for negotiation and the upper class who see language as a tool for networking.

With regard to the acceptance of others, the rules are pretty simple for those living in poverty: “Do you like that person?” The rules for acceptance in the middle class are “based largely on achievement,” and among the wealthy they are “related to social standing and connections.”

And for the poor, who generally have few possessions, people and relationships are the driving forces in their lives. While those are no doubt important to members of all social classes, middle-class rules tend to place a significant value on things such as houses and cars, while the hidden rules for the wealthy revere “one-of-a-kind objects, legacies, and pedigrees.”

Now, as I mentioned, the premise of Payne’s work is disparaged by some educators and scholars and championed by others. For Payne’s part, her hidden rules are primarily designed to help educators, parents and students navigate cultural differences and the world around them.

But again, what I would like to also emphasize is that the hidden rules of class illustrate how low-income Americans often do more with less and are forced to make difficult household decisions that many of us could never conceive of. Perhaps economist Muhammad Yunus, who holds a Nobel Peace Prize, United States Presidential Medal of Freedom, and United States Congress Gold Medal, put it best when he said, “The fact that the poor are alive is clear proof of their ability.”


Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104


One Comment on “We already know that poverty is a math problem. So, what else is it?”

  1. you should read the chapter on the use values of place in _Urban Fortunes: Towards a Political Economy of Place_. It’s pretty instructive. I’m surprised that Fullilove never referenced it.

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