A Framework for Understanding Poverty

Title of Work:

A Framework for Understanding Poverty

Author of Work:

Ruby Payne


Pastor Ethan Cherney

Page Number:


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This is not a new book. A Framework for Understanding Poverty was first published in 1995 and has undergone several revisions since. It has been recommended to me several times and is generally considered required reading for anyone working in occupations of compassion. Both originally and in subsequent revisions and editions, it focuses on those working in education and social work. Many pastors find themselves thrust into those fields. This book makes for an excellent primer on how to prepare for that often-unexpected discovery. 

Dr. Ruby Payne proposes that the key to the framework for understanding poverty is that it is not poverty that demands my understanding, but the people affected by it—people who need compassion and need me to understand that it is not compassionate to go no further in my understanding of poverty than my overly reductive gut reactions. “Being poor” is not just “not having money.” It is also not a moral failing. It is not the result of poor choices alone. The people who come from poverty are affected by poverty, and they (and those affected by being middle class, or by wealth) feel that effect much in the same way that people from Milwaukee are affected by central and eastern European heritage, by alcohol and alcoholism, by the English language and a particular midwestern dialect, and even by Christianity. The key to understanding how poverty affects people is seeing that class is culture. 

Whenever I realize that I have been avoiding understanding someone based on the differences between my culture and theirs, I feel shame. Aside from Payne’s book, but concurrent with my experience of it, I have noticed this most acutely in the cultural conversations around “woke-ism.” 

I would have had to say that there was originally nothing wrong with being called “woke.” There was nothing wrong with people familiar with the minority experience noticing and valuing and calling attention to the awareness of others. Awareness that the inequality of outcomes is a result of innumerable factors, one of which is an inequality of opportunity that corresponds to factors such as class, race, nationality, gender, and even sexual orientation. Folks familiar with the minority experience began labeling this awareness—an awareness that where situations are different, situations will be different— “wokeness.” It was originally meant as a compliment—and, usually, as a compliment it was received.  

I also could never have said there was anything wrong with wokeness leading to activism. How could people familiar with the minority experience, who were aware of the effects of inequality on that experience, not work to change that? How could members of the majority, who had become aware that the privileges they took for granted were not universal, not at least want to share them? Once you see something, you can’t unsee it. And once you feel responsible for the thing you see, you can’t un-feel responsibility for it. What could be wrong with that? 

For me, the problem arises when the awareness and feelings of responsibility of members of the majority (me) lead to shame. Shame is a poor motivator. And since, by definition, there are comparably fewer people in a minority, it is much more difficult for a woke member of the majority to find a personal connection—a personal outlet for their activism. As a result, they tend to stereotype the very groups they seek to help in a quest to alleviate shame, rather than personally care about the individuals whose situations could be improved. Proper awareness hopefully produces specific acts of kindness motivated not by shame, but by love. 

Another part of the problem comes from those whose awareness and feelings of responsibility lead to self-victimization. It is hard to empathize. It is so much easier to sympathize. It is hard to understand the feelings of another person. It is easier to just feel my own feelings about them. It is hard to care about victims of injustice from a position of privilege. It is easier to deny that I have that privilege, claiming a position of victimhood and hoping that camaraderie will suffice. 

The problem that I find most concerning is not the hypocrisy of the pseudo-woke; nor is it the misguided activism of the would-be woke; and it is not “wokeness” itself. What worries me most is my own desire to remain asleep, especially because I am a Christian! What good can come from claims that the world is more just than it is, especially from someone like me who knows just how unjust the sinful world has always been? Who benefits from a claim that different people are not different, or that it is offensive to me and people like me even to suggest that these differences exist? Shouldn’t a Christian like me be the very first in line to welcome the opportunity to wake up to the struggles of others so that we can better show them the kindness motivated by the love of Christ? What’s so offensive to a Christian like me about learning how to love people better? 

Dr. Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty is about being classically “woke,” that is, productively aware of the minority experience. The titular framework is about making it easier for someone to name the specific differences that both come from and produce inequality of opportunity, no matter where that someone stands on the spectrum. Her work has received criticism for not making race the primary factor in the inequality we see in America, but that is precisely what makes this work so practical. Race is one of many components, but inequality of opportunity is more specifically based on relationships. Members of every race have relationships and all relationships suffer the ravages of sin and its consequences. The job of a pastor is relationships, and a pastor can only do that job well from a position of compassion, not shame.  

This book helped me see the differences that are affecting my ability to communicate with people who are different from me about what makes us all the same. It showed me that I want to be first in line to understand the struggles that I don’t face so that I can be kind to those who do face them. I learned how to love people better by taking practical steps to learn more about them. This book made me more aware of the inequalities that stand in the way of their reception of my message about our equally shared sinful condition and the God who loves us all equally anyway. I don’t want guilt to motivate me towards either fake sympathy or denial of my responsibility. Love motivates empathy. Having read this book, I understand a little better how.