Before I started working at United Way of Northwest Arkansas, I knew very little about poverty. One of the first things I was given when I started was the book Bridges out of Poverty by Ruby Payne. It’s an incredible book that provides insight on some of the struggles that people in poverty face. Through the use of personal stories and illustrations, Payne paints a picture of the barriers that poverty creates and how individuals and organizations can create break those barriers down and create bridges that allow people to come out of poverty.
My favorite chapter was definitely chapter 3. Entitled “Hidden Rules Among Classes”, the chapter begins by having you take a three part quiz in which you mark all the things you know how to do. Out of 18 statements under the “Could You Survive in Poverty” portion, I only knew how to do one thing. Out of the 14 items in the “Could You Survive in Middle Class” portion, I knew how to do them all. In the list of 14 statements under “Could You Survive in Wealth”, I again only knew how to do one thing.
This utterly shocked me. I don’t know why, but I assumed that it wouldn’t be hard to know how to do the things that people in poverty have to know how to do; I just simply didn’t have to do them. I also thought that I probably knew how to survive in wealth, but just hadn’t gotten the means to try. I was so, so wrong. There are absolutely hidden rules among the different economic classes.
Why does this matter? Because it should affect what expectations we place on people who live in poverty. Here’s one example directly from the book: “One of the biggest difficulties in getting out of poverty is managing money and just the general information base around money. How can you manage something you’ve never had? Money is seen in poverty as an expression of personality and is used for entertainment and relationships. The notion of using money for security is truly grounded in the middle and wealthy classes.” (p.43)
This can be applied to all situations – my “normal” is likely different from someone who lives in poverty’s “normal” OR someone who is wealthy’s “normal”. We’re innately taught how to live within the class that we’re born into and learning a different way of life is extremely difficult. “The key point is that hidden rules govern so much of our immediate assessment of an individual and his/her capabilities. These are often the factors that keep an individual from moving upward in a career – or even getting the position in the first place.” (p.46)