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Journal eno2001's Journal: BOOK REVIEW: A Framework for Understanding Poverty 2

Genre: Nonfiction
Author: Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D.

Now that I'm on the bus about 98% of the time instead of driving, I've been gifted with some extra time to read real books. Taking advantage of that, I've blown through about five books (I'm a slow reader, but I have very good retention because I try to really sink the stuff into my brain) since January. I'm going to be posting a few reviews of the books because I've really enjoyed them. Let's get onto the review that is pertinent to this entry.

I got Ms. Payne's book based on some interesting excerpts that someone posted in a forum. The excerpts had to do with the different types of speech and how they influence learning and even ways of thinking. The poster quoted some sections from the book which assert that the differences in speech between the general classes of poverty, middle class and wealth have much more impact on the brain than most people realize. This intrigued me. So I put the book on reserve at my library and was quite excited to read it. The book is targeted at school administrators and employers, but I think a lot of people could benefit from reading it.

Framework (as I will refer to the book from here on out), starts out by re-defining poverty as more than just an economic issue. Payne, outlines the various resources that aren't typically taken into account when talking about poverty: emotional, mental, spiritual, physical, support systems, relationships and role models, knowledge of hidden class rules. The lack of financial resources is quite obvious in any discussion of poverty. The emotional is less so: "Being able to choose and control emotional responses, particularly to negative situations, without engaging in self-destructive behavior". Mental resources are also typically left out: "Having the mental abilities and acquired skills (reading, writing, computing) to deal with daily life". Support systems are never thought of: "Having friends, family, and backup resources available to access in times of need. These are external resources". Relationships and role models: "Having frequent access to adult(s) who are appropriate, who are nurturing to a child, and do not engage in self-destructive behavior". Knowledge of the hidden class rules: "Knowing the unspoken cues and habits of a group". In fact, I would say that a lot of people in any class make assumptions (many times they are incorrect) which prevent them from understanding people in the other classes and lead to false judgments levied against those in the other classes. But more on that later.

She also spend a little time making a distinction between situational poverty, where one falls on hard times and drops from wealth to middle class or middle class to poverty and generational poverty. Generational poverty being the situation where a family is in poverty for two or more generations. If you come out of poverty into middle class, you are still, for the purposes of the book, someone who came from poverty. And your children will still have some of the echoes of the effects of poverty. It is not until their children that the effects of poverty will disappear. This fact is largely unknown even to those who carry the traits of generational poverty with them. Interestingly for me, I am the first generation in my family to have lived a fairly middle class life. My daughter will be the first generation to likely not carry the traits of generational poverty.

After Payne defines poverty by way of resources, she moves onto language and story structure and how those things influence thought and actions. The first topic in chapter two is the "Registers of Language". There are five registers in every language: Frozen, Formal, Consultative, Casual and Intimate. Each is defined as follows:

Frozen - Language that is always the same. Examples are, the Lord's Prayer, wedding vows, etc...

Formal - The standard sentence syntax and word choice of work and school. has complete sentences and specific word choice.

Consultative - Formal register when used in conversation. Discourse pattern not quite as direct as formal register.

Casual - Language between friends and is characterized by a 400 to 800 word vocabulary. Word choice is general and not specific. Conversation is dependent upon non-verbal assists (moving hands, facial expressions, gestures). Sentence syntax is often incomplete. "Know what I mean"?

Intimate - Language between lovers. Also the language used in sexual harassment. (ie. "Blow me")

These registers were the result of work done in 1967 by linguist Martin Joos. One thing that he discovered while conceptualizing these registers of language was that you can drop one register in a conversation and still be socially exceptable. But to drop two or more would be seen as socially offensive. (In the middle of a prayer, someone in the room says, "How 'bout them Bulls". That would be a social gaffe.) This, as we shall see, illustrates one of the barriers that most people are unaware of when dealing with people from different classes.

Much of this linguistic work found that people coming from generational poverty exclusively use casual register in their language. The middle class and the wealthy tend to use formal register for the most part. At the most basic and obvious level, this creates a barrier to entry into the professional world. But, it has deeper effects than most realize. Growing up around casual register has impacts on the developing skills of a child. Long-term effects that are quite damaging. In formal register, the pattern of discourse is a narrative with a beginning and end. You start at point A and work your way to point B. The general goal of formal register's pattern of discourse is to get straight to the point. Payne says, "In casual register, the pattern is to go around and around and finally get to the point. For students who have no access to formal register, educators become frustrated with the tendency of these students to meander almost endlessly through a topic".

These differences in language registers between the classes are affected by language acquisition in early development as pointed out by linguist and educator James Paul Gee: "Primary discourse is the language an individual first acquired. Secondary discourse is the language of the larger society". For example, an American who grows up in a home where Spanish is the primary language will need to learn English as a secondary discourse. What Gee discovered is that acquisition of language is the more natural and best method of learning a language, and acquisition is only possible when there is a significant relationship between the role model and the developing child. Getting back to formal and casual register, this means that someone growing up in generational poverty will very likely only learn casual register for primary discourse. This is quite detrimental to any further learning developments.

As mentioned before there is a distinct difference in the pattern of discourse between formal and casual register. Payne provides some diagrams and explanations to try and illustrate the differences. In general, formal register story structure in formal discourse starts at the beginning, works through a plot and then reaches an end. The most important part of this order is the plot. In casual register story structure, "the story is told in vignettes with audience participation in between". The most emotional or climactic part of the story is usually the very first part of the discourse, and characters involved in the story are judged. Two examples:

Formal register:

"James called Bill a jackass. So Bill came over to Jack and punched him in the nose. From there a full blown brawl broke out on the factory floor until security came to break things up".

Casual register:

"Man, Bill popped Jim on the nose and there was blood everywhere! But he wasn't going to take what Jim called him. Jim's such a goddamn troublemaker! (someone interjects, "Bill's a loudmouth! Jim was right to give him some get back") Yeah, whatever. So before I knew what was going on, everyone started taking a swing at Bill or Jim. This wouldn't have happened if Jim would've kept to his self instead of sticking his nose in where it don't belong. It's kind of a shame that factory security came in and stopped the fight. I wanted to see Jim get flattened. That no good sonuvabitch deserves to be knocked down a few pegs".

These differences in register, discourse and story order are largely responsible for establishing some rather important skills in a developing child's mind. Regarding casual register as the primary acquired model of language, the following can be said based on the work of psychologist Reuven Feurstein: "If an individual depends upon a random, episodic story structure for memory patterns, lives in an unpredictable environment (as is typical of generational poverty)... then...

If an individual cannot plan, he/she cannot predict.
If an individual cannot predict, he/she cannot identify cause and effect.
if an individual cannot identify cause and effect, he/she cannot identify consequence.
If an individual cannot identify consequence, he/she cannot control impulsivity.
If an individual cannot control impulsivity, he/she has an inclination toward criminal behavior".

This is just a little sample of what Payne discusses in the book and there are a many more interesting examples and ideas that bear out in my personal experience. In fact, reading the book clarified for me a lot of the reasons why I have such difficulty dealing with people from a solidly middle class background (at least two generations in middle class) and perceive many of them to be arrogant and insensitive. The book also provides some pretty good arguments to counter libertarian assumptions that anyone can do anything as long as they are given liberty. There are definitely things you can't do when you don't have the full set of tools in your toolbox. A lot of middle class people make the assumption that there is a full tool kit for everyone. Make no mistake, I'm not insulting the poverty class and there are always exceptions to the rule. Some people can bring themselves out of generational poverty into middle class. It's rare, but it's possible. Considering that my mom started out as a mountain girl in the Andes with no running water, electricity or cars and was basically living a primitive lifestyle, and my dad was what most middle class people would define as "poor white trash", I'm not doing too badly.

My only criticism of the book is that I think it might be about ten to fifteen years too late. I'm noticing quite a bit of bleed over of the hidden class rules (which I didn't touch in this review yet, maybe later) from poverty into middle class. One example is that in poverty class a man needs to be a "lover and a fighter". In middle class a man needs to be a provider and self-sufficient. But these days, the "fighter" part of the poverty class male is becoming more of a societal requirement in middle class. So, I think that while the book is quite accurate in allowing one to "psyche people out", it's also slowly becoming irrelevant as these rules change.

Up next: "In Defense of Food, an Eater's Manifesto", by Michael Pollan

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BOOK REVIEW: A Framework for Understanding Poverty

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  • Poor people can't be poor if they have colour TVs!!!

    Good to have you back, and great review.

    But these days, the "fighter" part of the poverty class male is becoming more of a societal requirement in middle class.

    Disagree. I think you're just seeing the middle class being eroded like all get out, and having to adjust themselves to their new economic situation, not the other way around.

    Sounds like a great book, I'll have to pick it up.
  • It sounds very interesting. We tend to underestimate the impact of language on many things; language and culture are strongly intertwined. I agree with Captain Splendid, though, that what you observe is more about the erosion of the middle class than about inaccuracy of the model presented in the book.

    I wonder if this model might also give some insights into the process of national development. However much a nation might produce, development is about the establishment of a middle class with the tools re

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