Ruby Payne is a former high school teacher and administrator who decided to write what she knew about schools, kids, and poverty and became a best-selling author.
She gave three talks in Toledo Thursday — the latest installment in the Toledo Community Coalition’s ongoing series. Her public lecture was at Central Catholic High School.
Ms. Payne aims for the thinking and not the knee-jerk response. She is charismatic and a good storyteller. She was enthusiastically received.
Ms. Payne is perceptive and sometimes wickedly funny about class: She says the middle-class person doesn’t have to think about things that take the time and energy of the poor — like parole officers, rehab counselors, and cars that don’t run reliably. Nor do they have to think about things rich people think about — managing money and hobbies.
Education, she says, is the real currency of success today. The rich use it for connection, the middle class and the would-be rich for income. The poor don’t have it, which is what keeps them poor. But the poor have ample problem-solving skills. What the poor need, she holds, is to be taught the “hidden rules” of those who have stable lives.
The other key concept in her work I would call the “all of the above,” rule of causality. She asks her audience to look at four possible determinants of poverty: personal flaws and weaknesses; lack of jobs; exploitation, including racism; or systemic factors. She asks people to pick one and think about whether they lean left or right. In the end, she says, it is all four. Left and right are both correct.
To some degree, this is all too true. But, if you are looking either for cause or cure, with an eye toward action, you have to narrow the focus.
This week I attended the monthly “going home” meeting of people trying to transition from the criminal justice system to mainstream society — sponsored by the Re-Entry Coalition of Northwest Ohio and the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. Lucas County is doing something right because, at a recidivism rate of 22.6 percent, it is doing twice as well as most of urban Ohio. What is the key? Focus on housing, sobriety, and a job. Achieve those three things and you are instantly middle class.
One of the wisest voices on poverty and race in this country is William Julius Wilson, author of When Work Disappears. Through painstaking scholarship he shows the rise of the underclass, indeed, the thug class, in cities like ours is in inverse proportion to vanishing jobs.
He says: “Crime, family dissolution, welfare, and low levels of social organization are fundamentally a consequence of the disappearance of work.”
And he told Henry Louis Gates: “I see a very strong association between some of these problems like gang behavior and violent crime and joblessness. If you look at a recent longitudinal study conducted by my colleague Delbert Elliott, he found that by the time white males and black males reached the late 20s, the violent crime ratio is 4 to 1 — four black to one white. ... However, when he controlled for employment, there was no significant difference in the violent crime rate between white males and black males.”
If we really want to do something, we need to create summer employment programs for young men and women in the cities and public works programs for their fathers.
Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6266.