View Full Version : 'Affluence' and 'Class': Definition & Distinction

April 14th, 2007, 07:41 AM
Im sure we've all had times when we were fascinated by extreme affluence. Whenever I hear a story about Gates or Buffet donating a couple of million to some charity, I always wonder: What percentage of your entire wealth do you actually give to philanthropy?
Recently, there was an article on Carlos Slim Helu, who had become the worlds second richest man mostly through telecommunications based in Mexico. He also owned 13% of MCI but sold it to Verizon.
One of my main goals is to own property. My family had never owned property and always lived under a landlord paying rent. But the world holds limitless possibilites. Currently there are 9 million millionaires and 1000 billionaires on Earth. Now 1 billion dollars is equal to 1000 million dollars.
According to this chart, most of America lives within the Working Class and the Lower Middle Class.

Percent of households with six figure incomes and individuals with incomes in the top 10%, exceeding $77,500.

This graph shows the income of the given percentiles from 1967 to 2003, in 2003 dollars.

With variations in the use of different reference groups come various definitions of the term affluent. Comparisons regarding affluence in the United States are often, but not always, conducted using the "Average Joe/Jane (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Average_Joe)" as a reference group. While the economic fortunes of nearly all Americans, 99.9%, are dwarfed and seem nearly non-existent when compared to those on in the top 0.1%, the median household and personal income levels do serve as one of the most common reference points. (Notice the huge gap between 60k and 100k+)

Breakdowns of individuals and households with incomes exceeding $60,000

The wide income discrepancies within the top 1.5% of households.


Mexico's Slim Bumps Buffett as World's 2nd-Richest, Forbes Says

By Emily Brown
April 12 (Bloomberg) -- Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helu displaced U.S. investor Warren Buffett as the world's second-richest man in March after almost doubling his personal fortune in 14 months, according to the Forbes magazine Web site.
As of yesterday, Slim, 67, is worth $53.1 billion, compared with Buffett's $52.4 billion; Buffett had held the position for seven years, the magazine said. Microsoft Corp.'s Bill Gates is first, at $56 billion, and has been for 13 years, Forbes said.
Slim gained $23 billion as the Mexican stock market jumped 49 percent in 2006, Forbes said. Slim's Carso Global Telecom SA, which controls Mexico's Telmex telephone utility, has gained 15 percent over two months. His biggest holding, wireless provider America Movil SA, rose 4 percent after talks on buying a stake in Olimpia SpA, which controls Telecom Italia SpA, Forbes said.
Slim recently dismissed his U.S. peers' charitable donations as ``going around like Santa Claus,'' Forbes said. Buffett has pledged to donate 10 million Class B shares, valued at $30.7 billion, to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest charitable contribution in history, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

To be continued

April 14th, 2007, 08:08 AM
The middle class is the elite in post-industrial western society. CEOs and particuarly politicians are usually middle class.

April 14th, 2007, 11:59 AM
If CEOs and politicians are middle class, then who fits in the upper class? Wouldnt CEOs and politicians be generally categorized as upper class? And how is the middle class the elite?

April 14th, 2007, 12:26 PM
The middle class is the elite in post-industrial western society. CEOs and particuarly politicians are usually middle class.
He's nuts. Maybe that's the way in England? He can't be talking about the U.S.:confused:

April 14th, 2007, 12:50 PM
Perhaps you're right. The upper class in the UK is tiny and is pretty much just landowners - as in country estates. Class isn't just about wealth - I would consider Bill and Hiliary Clinton to be middle class and also a politician like Barack Obama just as Tony Blair is in Britain.

April 14th, 2007, 01:02 PM
Ben, in the U.S. we pretend we don't have born class - we focus on wealth and earning power. I think there's a lot of unexamined class politics in our culture.

$62,500 is not upper middle class in NYC. To me, upper middle class status means you can buy a home, and that's not enough.

April 14th, 2007, 02:11 PM
Bill and Hill are definitely upper class.

April 14th, 2007, 03:56 PM
$62,500-$100k/ year is upper middle class. Anything over that would be considered upper class. But what about the millionaires? The millionaires make up the "elite", the upper upper class. Bill and Hilary are in the upper upper class for sure. Remember Bills book deal? He recieved $12 million in advanced without royalties! That dude is made

April 14th, 2007, 10:31 PM
$62,500-$100k/ year is upper middle class. Anything over that would be considered upper class. But what about the millionaires? The millionaires make up the "elite", the upper upper class. Bill and Hilary are in the upper upper class for sure. Remember Bills book deal? He recieved $12 million in advanced without royalties! That dude is made

In New York anything under 100k is considered lower middle class. Over 100 is middle class in New York City. Over 150 is upper middle class. over 250k is well off.

April 15th, 2007, 05:20 AM
Ben, in the U.S. we pretend we don't have born class - we focus on wealth and earning power. I think there's a lot of unexamined class politics in our culture.
But surely 50 Cent wouldn't be upper class?

April 15th, 2007, 10:49 AM
This year ^^^ Yes.

Once the records stop selling ... No.

(see: Rick James (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rick_James) or MC Hammer (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MC_Hammer))

April 15th, 2007, 05:06 PM
From the bottom looking up it probably all looks the same.

April 15th, 2007, 07:22 PM
"It should be stressed... that a position does not bring power and prestige because it draws a high income. Rather, it draws a high income because it is functionally important and the available personnel is for one reason or another scarce. It is therefore superficial and erroneous to regard high income as the cause of a man's power and prestige, just as it is erroneous to think that a man's fever is the cause of his disease... The economic source of power and prestige is not income primarily, but the ownership of capital goods (including patents, good will, and professional reputation). Such ownership should be distinguished from the possession of consumers' goods, which is an index rather than a cause of social standing." -Kingsley Davis and Wilbert E. Moore, Principles of Stratification.

"If... money and wealth [alone] determine class ranking... a cocaine dealer, a lottery winner, a rock star, and a member of the Rockefeller family-are all on the same rung of the social latter... [yet most] Americans would be unwilling to accord equal rank to a lottery winner or rock star and a member of one of America's most distinguished families... wealth is not the only factor that determines a person's rank." - William Thompson, Joseph Hickey; Society in Focus, 2005

June 10th, 2007, 08:59 AM
But surely 50 Cent wouldn't be upper class?

The guy has NO class! They always say the rich get richer and poor poorer but the graph shows the poor staying the same? The rich earn their money in a completely different way, poor income is stable but wealth can fluctuate massive depending on many factors.

June 10th, 2007, 11:36 AM
"If... money and wealth [alone] determine class ranking... a cocaine dealer, a lottery winner, a rock star, and a member of the Rockefeller family-are all on the same rung of the social latter... [yet most] Americans would be unwilling to accord equal rank to a lottery winner or rock star and a member of one of America's most distinguished families... wealth is not the only factor that determines a person's rank." - William Thompson, Joseph Hickey; Society in Focus, 2005
This is so obvious, it hardly needs to be stated. If you deny it, then "class" and "wealth" are synonymous, and there's no need for both words.

June 10th, 2007, 12:44 PM
You mention class and wealth, but lets not forget good breeding! Background counts,

June 11th, 2007, 01:45 AM
You mention class and wealth, but lets not forget good breeding! Background counts,

Why does this sound so f***in racist??

June 11th, 2007, 03:22 AM
Anyone who's spent as much time around upper class people as I have will tell you that "breeding" is almost as easily purchased as a pair of socks; it just costs a lot more. ;)

Oh, and the 'class' dividers look really, really skewed to the downside. Someone making 100K (in little old USD) is NOT upper class in a developed country.

June 11th, 2007, 12:54 PM
Why does this sound so f***in racist??
:confused: where are you coming from my friend???

June 11th, 2007, 01:59 PM
The guy has NO class! They always say the rich get richer and poor poorer but the graph shows the poor staying the same? The rich earn their money in a completely different way, poor income is stable but wealth can fluctuate massive depending on many factors.

what does class has to do with wealth??

June 11th, 2007, 02:39 PM
A big disscusion point on this thread was does money mean class, to which i put my 2cents in.

ClubBR nothing about that statement said anything about race at all.

June 11th, 2007, 03:07 PM
^^^ ahh, I see.

June 11th, 2007, 03:33 PM
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/19079624/ (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/19079624/)

What’s a CEO worth? Millions ... and then some

Half of S&P 500 leaders made more than $8.3 million in pay, stocks, perks

Compensation for America’s top CEOs has skyrocketed into the stratospheric heights of pro athletes and movie stars, as half now make more than $8.3 million a year, and some make much, much more.
According to a study conducted by the Associated Press, CEOs of companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 that filed proxy information in the first half of this year received a combined $4.16 billion in 2006.
The high cost of chief executive pay has drawn criticism in recent years as salaries rose, stock options paid off like lottery jackpots, and perks like chauffeured cars and private jets spread. Still, there are few signs of any investor backlash.

Yahoo Inc.’s Terry Semel (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/19079624/#), whose Internet company has lagged behind Google Inc. in profit growth and stock performance, led the pack with total compensation last year of $71.7 million, according to the AP formula used to analyze those filings.

That’s more than 2½ times the $27 million in total compensation this year for the New York Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez, baseball’s highest-paid player, and higher than the typical pay A-list stars like Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio earn for a movie — $20 million, plus 20 percent of the gross box office take.
Semel was followed on the AP list by two energy industry CEOs, Bob Simpson of XTO Energy Inc. at $59.5 million and Occidental Petroleum Corp.’s Ray R. Irani at $52.8 million. Investment banks and energy companies were the sectors with the highest-paid leaders.

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The top 10 earners were in disparate industries, but they all had one thing in common: They were paid at least $30 million each in 2006.

The Securities and Exchange Commission required companies starting this year to more completely disclose what they’re paying their top executives. But the SEC’s approach has been criticized for failing to provide useful figures for investors; the AP, in consultation with leading experts, came up with its own formula designed specifically to isolate the value of all compensation awarded to CEOs in the previous year.

Of the 386 companies in the AP list — those whose fiscal years ended after Dec. 15, and who reported by June 1 under the new SEC rules — only six reported their CEOs made less than $1 million last year.
The lowest paid was Costco Wholesale (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/19079624/#) Corp. CEO James Sinegal, who made $411,688. But no need to shed tears for him: Sinegal also owns 2.4 million Costco shares, worth about $1.3 billion, and has options to buy 1.2 million more shares.

This year’s expanded disclosure requirements also offer a much more detailed look at perks given to top executives. They range from multimillion dollar tax payments on behalf of executives to much smaller amounts for household bills, including home alarm monitoring.

A handful of companies, including Washington Mutual Inc., have stopped offering perks, and pay consultants say many more are likely to do so as boards think twice about the repercussions of seeing their largess disclosed in proxies.

The AP formula, developed with advice from pay consultants Pearl Meyer & Partners and Mercer Human Resource Consulting, adds up salaries, bonuses, perks, above-market interest on pay that is set aside for later and what companies estimated the present value to be of restricted stock and options awards on the day they were granted last year.

June 11th, 2007, 04:22 PM
A big disscusion point on this thread was does money mean class
Bill Cosby and Elvis Presley: both had money, one has class.

ClubBR nothing about that statement said anything about race at all.

June 12th, 2007, 12:00 PM
what does class has to do with wealth??
They don't necessarily co-habit. Ask Donald Trump.

In England you can find a member of the landed gentry with a traceable well-respected family going back centuries, some to Tudor/Elizabethan times, but who very little dosh in the bank.
On the other hand you can walk into the City of London and find plenty of Hedge Fund or Private Equity people who shed-loads of dosh, yet not an ounce of class.

June 12th, 2007, 12:18 PM
Sometimes wealth and class do coincide, though: I am reminded of our recent Pat Buckley thread here. There was a lady who had tons of wealth and did not need to lift a finger, but worked tirelessly to improve the world as she saw it.

ali r.
{downtown broker}

June 12th, 2007, 04:33 PM
It is easy to have class if you're affluent. It's much harder to have class if you're not.

June 12th, 2007, 05:25 PM
It is easy to have class if you're affluent. It's much harder to have class if you're not.
...which makes it especially surprising that some affluent people have no class.

I think you meant "relatively easy."

June 12th, 2007, 07:02 PM
When I was living closer to the city, I sometimes helped out the nuns from Mother Teresa's order (over on the west side near the Holland tunnel) on weekend mornings. They took care of the downtrodden, mainly AIDS sufferers in their final days. The nuns took a vow of poverty, but in my opinion, they had a lot of class.

Class is a term that is a bit subjective. Most would say the nuns mentioned above have class, but still they would not be considered "upper-class". Paris Hilton, meanwhile, would not be considered to have class, but she would be called "upper-class" by most. The class you're put in is primarily based on wealth, though it does not necessarily make you a better person to be in a higher class.

Finally, I don't know too many upper classer's, but the middle and working classes do seem to have more motivation to better themselves and their community, and are generally more responsible than those in the lower class. A lot of that has to do with low education and poor personal choices (i.e. illegitemacy, gangs, drugs). Society can only do so much; personal responsibility has to start playing a bigger role.

June 12th, 2007, 09:27 PM
...which makes it especially surprising that some affluent people have no class.

I think you meant "relatively easy."

I suppose so. I tried not to say too much with a general statement, but if I were to amend it I'd say:

"It's relatively easy to have class (assuming you want to) if you're affluent."

Take the Williams sisters, for example. No class when they first entered the tennis scene. A few million dollars, etiquette courses, and makeovers later, and they now have class. Of course, the impetus must come first from the individual. Otherwise, you're stuck being Rosie O'Donnell for the rest of your overpaid, overpublicized existence.

June 13th, 2007, 01:12 AM
Wait, are we talking about class as in "classy", or class as in social class? They're two completely different things.

June 13th, 2007, 07:18 AM
"A stratified society is one marked by inequality, by differences among people that are regarded as being higher or lower... it is logically possible for a society to be stratified in a continuous gradation between high and low without any sharp lines... in reality... there is only a limited number of types of occupations... People in similar positions... grow similar in their thinking and lifestyle... they form a pattern, and this pattern creates social class."
-—Dennis Gilbert, The American Class Structure

In some individuals the pattern doesn't form when their income level changes.

June 13th, 2007, 08:11 AM
Wait, are we talking about class as in "classy", or class as in social class? They're two completely different things.


I think that if we are talkign about 'socail' class as in status then money does tend to bestow it more or less automatically.

If we're talking style, well, then it's entirely subjective anyway, right?

June 13th, 2007, 04:42 PM
Thus the phrase "new money".

A change in class does not instantly bestow class... ;)

June 14th, 2007, 03:08 AM
These days 'new' to 'old' money takes less than a generation...

June 14th, 2007, 07:50 AM
These days 'new' to 'old' money takes less than a generation...
.... but you try getting membership of some of the old established clubs in London, you're likely to be blackballed. Real class comes with its own insurance policy, ie social connections, people who've known your family, or been at the same schools, etc., people who are suspicious of "new money" and can check you out. Some well known "new money" entrepreneur millionaires have found it difficult, if nigh impossible, to break through these invisible but real social barriers and have been left frustrated and very annoyed. "Old money" still rules in places!

June 15th, 2007, 06:11 AM
June 10, 2007

The Class-Consciousness Raiser


By the time Ruby Payne sat down for lunch, she had been at it for three hours straight, standing alone behind a lectern on a wide stage in a cavernous convention hall, parked between two American flags, instructing an audience of 1,400 Georgians in the hidden rules of class. No notes, no warm-up act, just Ruby, with her Midwestern-by-way-of-East-Texas drawl and her crisp white shirt, her pinstriped business suit and bright red lipstick and blow-dried blond hair, a wireless microphone hooked around her right ear. She had already explained why rich people don’t eat casseroles, why poor people hang their pictures high up on the wall, why middle-class people pretend to like people they can’t stand. She had gone through the difference between generational poverty and situational poverty and the difference between new money and old money, and she had done a riff on how middle-class people are so self-satisfied that they think everyone wants to be middle class.

For the Glynn County Board of Education, Payne’s visit was a big deal. It was back in 2005 that Marjorie Varnadoe, the board’s director of professional development, called to request a presentation from Payne, and this particular Thursday, two years later, was the earliest available date. Principals had ordered Payne’s books and DVDs by the boxload, mostly her ur-text, “A Framework for Understanding Poverty,” and they made the books required reading for their staffs. All over the county, which is on the coast, down near the Florida border, schools held small workshops on class and education, using Payne’s “Framework” as a guide, and teachers sat down together for informal discussions and lunchroom chats about poverty and wealth. When the big day came, the entire school system was given the day off, and by 8 a.m. almost every single teacher and administrator in the county was packed into the Jekyll Island Conference Center, along with the school board, the Chamber of Commerce and various local dignitaries.

The morning went well. Payne, who is 56, has been giving this presentation for more than 10 years, and she knows how to work it: alternating a funny story with a sad one, mixing anecdotes from her own teaching career with references to the work of learned academics, never lecturing or preaching, keeping up a steady stream of one-liners. At 10 a.m., there was a 15-minute break, but not for Payne. A line quickly formed in front of her, and she sat on the lip of the stage, leaning on one arm, her legs tucked beneath her, signing books and listening attentively as one audience member after another told her their own stories about class and education and, usually, how her books had helped them understand their students and themselves. A few of the teachers hugged Payne. One woman kissed her hand. Another burst into tears.

And now it was time for lunch, fried chicken and sweet iced tea and white sheet cake for 1,400, served in a second giant conference hall just across the atrium from the first. Payne sat in the middle of a small circle of admirers; across the table was Charlotte Lawson, an instructional coach at a local elementary school. Lawson was a veteran of the Ruby Payne system, a graduate of a four-day in-depth certification course that authorized her to train other teachers in the basics of Payne’s framework. But she had never met Payne one on one like this, and she was gushing. “I’m so excited,” she said. “This is like a dream.”

Payne laughed a friendly laugh.

“I’ve shared so much of the training here,” Lawson said. “People are always telling me, ‘It makes all the pieces fit together.’ When you work with children and families from poverty, you don’t understand it till you hear this piece, and then all of a sudden you’re going, ‘Oh, that’s why they did that.’ ”

At the heart of Payne’s philosophy is a one-page chart, titled “Hidden Rules Among Classes,” which appears in most of her books. There are three columns, for poverty, middle class and wealth, and 15 rows, covering everything from time to love to money to language. In a few words, Payne explains how each class sees each concept. Humor in poverty? About people and sex. In the middle class? About situations. In wealth? About social faux pas. In poverty, the present is most important. In the middle class, it’s the future. In wealth, it’s the past. The key question about food in poverty: Did you have enough? In the middle class: Did you like it? In wealth: Was it presented well?

It may be that the only people with abiding faith in the power of class divisions in America are the country’s few remaining Marxists and Ruby Payne. And while Payne may not believe in class struggle, per se, she does believe that there is widespread misunderstanding among the classes — and more than ever, she says, the class that bears the cost of that misunderstanding is the poor. In schools, particularly, where poor students often find themselves assigned to middle-class teachers, class cluelessness is rampant.

Your class, Payne says, determines everything: your eating habits, your speech patterns, your family relations. It is possible to move out of the class you were born into, either up or down, she says, but the transition almost always means a great disruption to your sense of self. And you can ascend the class ladder only if you are willing to sacrifice many of your relationships and most of your values — and only if you first devote yourself to careful study of the hidden rules of the class you hope to enter.

Payne’s critics say she is oversimplifying the complexities of poverty in the United States, perpetuating offensive stereotypes of irresponsible, disorganized poor people who play the TV too loud and like to solve disputes with their fists. Payne is quick to caution that her portrait is a general one. She would be “heartsick,” she said on stage, “if anyone used this information to stereotype.” But she also says that if teachers and other professionals don’t look below the surface of class — if they don’t make an effort to understand the habits and styles and traditions that persist in many poor families — they will never be able to recognize the deep obstacles that poor people, and especially poor children, often face.

Payne’s journey into class consciousness began more than 30 years ago, when she met Frank, the man who would become her husband. Ruby was raised in a middle-class Mennonite family in Ohio, while Frank grew up in extreme poverty in Goshen, Ind. As Ruby began to spend time in Frank’s impoverished neighborhood, she realized that she didn’t understand the first thing about the lives of the people who lived there — and they didn’t get her, either. Frank’s friends were appalled that Ruby didn’t know how to defend herself in a fight; Ruby was stunned that her neighbors would regularly get paid on Friday and, after a weekend of carousing, be broke by Monday.

As Payne studied her new surroundings, she came to appreciate more subtle nuances of class division. She realized that her husband’s family’s poverty was what she would later come to call “situational”: they had been middle class until Frank’s father died when Frank was 6, and only then had they slipped down to the economy’s bottom rung. Most of their neighbors, by contrast, were in “generational poverty,” meaning their families had been poor for as long as anyone could remember. Each group, she discovered, had its own distinct set of beliefs and customs.

Payne’s next lesson came when her husband took a job on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade. He wasn’t rich, but he was now spending his work life with men who were, which meant that Ruby was expected to socialize with their wives. She didn’t fit in with the rich any better than she had fit in with the poor. More miscommunications and social awkwardness ensued, generating more fodder for Payne’s growing understanding of class difference.

Payne wasn’t quite sure what to do with this new knowledge. As her career in education developed, from teacher to principal to administrator, she found that her understanding of class came in handy. Because of her exposure to her husband’s family and neighbors, it seemed, she was better able to communicate with poor students than most other middle-class teachers. Her colleagues began to ask her for help and advice on dealing with their most troubling students, and Payne worked up an informal set of strategies and tips that she would pass along.

Then in 1993, after moving to Texas, Payne read a book that had a profound effect on her: “Creating Money,” a New Age-infused guide to “the spiritual laws of money.” It’s an odd book, ostensibly dictated to the authors by two “spirit guides” named Orin and DaBen. But Payne was inspired. “The book said, Make a list of what you want in your life and ask the universe to bring it to you,” she told me. “So I did. I wrote: ‘I want a life without financial constraints. I want a life without institutional constraints. And I want to make a difference with children.’ And it happened!”

Payne began to give talks on class for small groups of teachers, and they were a hit. Word spread. Soon she was addressing audiences all across the Texas school district where she worked. Over spring break in 1995, she banged out a manuscript based on her ideas and quickly published it herself. This was “A Framework for Understanding Poverty,” which, she says, has gone on to sell more than a million copies. As Payne’s following grew, she quit her job and became a full-time speaker, author and trainer.

She now owns and runs her own business, called aha! Process, Inc.; it has more than 50 trainers on contract and accrues millions of dollars in annual revenues. Ruby Payne has become a small industry: her company offers training sessions, workshops, DVDs, audiotapes, T-shirts, autographed Ruby Payne coffee mugs and lots and lots of books: a book about the hidden rules of class in the workplace, a workbook to help people in poverty learn the rules to pull themselves out, a Spanish translation of “A Framework for Understanding Poverty.” In “What Every Church Member Should Know About Poverty,” which Payne wrote with Bill Ehlig, a minister in Baytown, Tex., she not only urges middle-class and wealthy churches to welcome poor parishioners in the door but she also lays out the extra steps they need to take to make the newcomers feel at home. In “Crossing the Tracks for Love,” Payne takes on romance, offering advice for those who enter into a relationship with a person from another class. It’s not easy, Payne cautions: everything from disciplining children to interior decoration is a potential flashpoint for a class-based quarrel. So she provides tips:

“If you’re from middle class and marry or otherwise move into poverty, understand the need of your spouse/partner to protect you,” she writes. “You are his/her possession. Try to see the positives in this.”

And later: “If you come from a middle-class background and marry into wealth . . . learn about extended silverware and silver settings and the different pieces of crystal used to drink different beverages — and take cooking classes. Never, but never, make fun of yourself as a deficient cook. Be extremely knowledgeable about wine.”

In “Crossing the Tracks,” as in all of her work, Payne emphasizes that she is not making value judgments about the relative merits of the different classes; she’s just explaining how they work. “I’m not interested in changing your behavior or the behavior of your spouse or significant other,” she writes. “My only goal is to provide you with options — and awareness. When you know the hidden rules, you have more choices. You can choose whether or not you want to alter your behavior or embrace a different way of doing things. But unless you’re informed, you won’t get the opportunity to decide.”

Despite Payne’s counsel, the reality is that in the nation’s bedrooms and churches, bridges across the class divide are increasingly rare: most Americans worship with and marry people who are just like them. In public schools, though, class divisions are a frequent part of daily existence, sometimes within the student body but also, and more significant, between teachers and students.

The passage of the No Child Left Behind law in 2002 brought a new urgency to the issue of poverty in the classroom. For the first time, schools were required not only to report their overall test results but also to calculate the scores for various “subgroups,” including racial minorities, students for whom English is a second language and students whose parents’ income is low enough to qualify them for a free or reduced-price lunch. It soon became impossible to ignore that there was a problem: poor students were scoring well behind their wealthier peers. And schools suddenly had a powerful incentive to try to address that disparity. Even otherwise well-performing schools could be labeled failures if their poor students weren’t catching up.

Payne believes that teachers can’t help their poor students unless they first understand them, and that means understanding the hidden rules of poverty. The second step, Payne says, is to teach poor students explicitly about the hidden rules of the middle class. She emphasizes that the goal should not be to change students’ behavior outside of school: you don’t teach your students never to fight if fighting is an important survival skill in the housing project where they live. But you do tell them that in order to succeed at school or later on in a white-collar job, they need to master certain skills: how to speak in “formal register,” how to restrain themselves from physical retaliation, how to keep a schedule, how to exist in what Payne calls the “abstract world of paper.”

At the Jekyll Island seminar, I met Steve Kipp, a science teacher at Brunswick High with a ponytail and a jumpy, eager energy. He looked as if he might be the kind of guy whom the other teachers would call when they couldn’t get their computers to work right. Kipp sat in the front row, dead center, and at the break he was the first person to come up and ask Payne for advice.

In 10th grade at Brunswick High, Kipp told me later, the advanced students usually take chemistry, and the other students, the ones who are more likely to wind up in technical college, take Kipp’s class, which is called General Physical Science. And each year it’s the same, Kipp said: the rich and middle-class kids are tracked into chemistry, and he gets the kids from poverty. Kipp grew up in the middle class, and in the past, he said, before he read Payne’s book, he would get frustrated by his poor students. They seemed unwilling or unable to learn; they laughed when he tried to mete out discipline. And so he found it hard to keep exerting himself. What was the point in teaching them, he thought, if they weren’t going to make an effort?

But after he immersed himself in Payne’s work, about five years ago, Kipp’s ideas changed. “I realized, these kids aren’t dumb,” he said. “They just haven’t had the enriching experiences that I had growing up.” So he pushes himself harder now to provide more experiments in the classroom, more hands-on learning to help his students develop the same kind of instinctive understanding of nature that he got running around in the woods as a boy.

Payne’s work in the schools has attracted a growing chorus of criticism, mostly from academia. Although Payne says that her only goal is to help poor students, her critics claim that her work is in fact an assault on those students. By teaching them middle-class practices, critics say, she is engaging in “classism” and racism. Her work is “riddled with factual inaccuracies and harmful stereotypes,” charges Anita Bohn, an assistant professor at Illinois State University, in a paper on Payne’s work. Paul Gorski, an assistant professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, writes that Payne’s central text “consists, at the crudest level, of a stream of stereotypes and a suggestion that we address poverty and education by ‘fixing’ poor people instead of reforming classist policies and practices.” (“LeftyHenry,” a recent poster on a political blog, was less subtle in his criticism; he called Payne “the Hitler of American academics.”)

Payne’s critics seem less aggrieved by what she includes in her analysis than by what they say she has left out: an acknowledgment that the American economy and American schools systematically discriminate against poor people. In this way, Payne finds herself in the middle of one of the central debates about poverty today. On one side are those, like Payne, who believe that poor people share certain habits and behaviors that help keep them in poverty. Recognizing and changing those behaviors, Payne and those who share her views believe, will help poor people to succeed. On the other side are those like Payne’s critics, who think that the game is so thoroughly fixed that most poor people can’t succeed no matter what they do. To them, locating any of the causes of persistent poverty among poor people themselves is, in effect, blaming the victim.

Academics in the latter group can’t stand Payne. And academics in the former group find it hard to defend her. There are plenty of sociologists, psychologists and economists who have reached conclusions similar to Payne’s: poor parents are more inclined to use corporal punishment; poor students are more eager to work hard in a teacher’s class when they feel a personal relationship with a teacher; poor homes are more often chaotic and loud. The problem is Payne’s methodology, or rather her lack of one. She does have a Ph.D. in social policy, and her book does have a few pages of footnotes. Her seminars include occasional references to popular scholarly works of sociology and history, like Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” and Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel.” But clearly, Payne’s preferred unit of research is the anecdote. Her talks are nothing like university lectures. They’re a blend of cracker-barrel wisdom, Tony Robbins-style motivational speaking and a Chris Rock comedy routine. And that means that among academics in good standing, saying something nice about Ruby Payne is a good way to invite the disapproval of your peers.

You would think that Payne wouldn’t fret about a few angry assistant professors whose collective audience is a tiny fraction of the size of hers. But somehow, like gnats at a backyard barbecue, they drive her to distraction. Each time a progressive education journal publishes a detailed Foucauldian critique of her book (which she wrote, don’t forget, in a single week), Payne feels compelled to write in with a paragraph or two in her own defense. It doesn’t work, of course; the author invariably blasts back with another extended volley of withering scorn. In the pages of the Teachers College Record, the rich blond-haired white lady from Corpus Christi is never going to come out ahead.

Still, Payne won’t give up. She told me that she plans to spend a good part of this summer bolstering the scholarship behind her work, digging into the latest research, adding footnotes and references to her 11-year-old book.

For now, though, she’s got her stories, one after another, some from her own life, some from her trainers or from teachers and principals she has worked with. They can seem rehearsed, a little neat; some she repeats almost verbatim from one or another of her books. But for the teachers in the Jekyll Island conference center, that didn’t seem to matter much. For many of them, the real struggle of teaching wasn’t about keeping up with the latest in the debate on phonics versus whole language. It was about figuring out how to teach, how to help — even how to connect with — students who sometimes seemed as if they weren’t just from a different neighborhood but from a different planet.

As the afternoon drew to a close, Payne cut out the jokes and grew serious. “I think the hardest part about teaching is the stories that kids tell you that just pull your heart out,” she said, gripping the sides of the lectern and scanning the audience. “There isn’t a person in here who doesn’t have a student whose stories still haunt you.” Her voice was quiet, and her accent had softened. Every pair of eyes, it seemed, was on her. “What I’ve learned to say to kids is this: ‘You know, I respect you so much that you can handle this situation. I don’t know that I could. But if you don’t want to live that way the rest of your life, then I can give you the tools that will help you do things differently. It’s your choice. I can’t change your situation right now, but I can certainly give you the tools to help you change.’ And I think that’s the gift we bring. It’s a huge gift.”

Paul Tough is an editor of the magazine. He is writing a book about the Harlem Children’s Zone, a community organization.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

June 20th, 2007, 10:04 PM
I enjoyed that article.