Fighting Poverty

Paul Tough wrote a phenomenal article for the New York Times magazine in which he tells the story of Ruby Payne who harnessed the Law of Attraction to start a multi-million dollar business, change her life, and fight poverty.

By accident, over thirty years ago, she discovered vast differences in the way poor, middle class, and rich people think and appropriately named it ‘Class- Consciousness.’

Ruby’s story resonates with me.

Change is possible

It is critical that you change the way you think if you wish to change anything about your circumstances. And the best way to change the way you think is to examine the people that have escaped poverty and the entrapments of working class servitude, and model how they think. Instead of hating and envying the successful, learn from them!

The Giant Sucking Vortex of Poverty

If you come from a poor or working class background, and you wish to change your thoughts and actions, the biggest obstacle is the notion of selling out. The pressure to stay in the circle of damaging thoughts and beliefs is tremendous, and it comes from within the class structure like a giant sucking vortex.


I can relate to Ruby’s anecdotes. I’ve seen grown men with families take home $1,000 on Thursday and ask for an advance on Friday because they blew the entire check on booze, cocaine, and pull-tabs. Not only did they think this was normal, they blamed other people for their actions! Meanwhile their wives and children suffer.

Schools of Thought

It appears there are two schools of thought about reducing poverty.

  1. Poverty is mostly due to a cyclical pattern of thoughts and actions that adults can change if they choose to implement certain options available to them. Outsiders can help, but it is a at best an 80/20 proposition.
  2. Poverty is structural and the poor cannot help themselves. Expecting them to help themselves “blames the victim”, is counter productive, and will only lead to more poverty. Alleviating poverty requires the power elite to lift the poor from poverty.

#1 says – you can do it and I’d love to help you – you are more powerful than you imagine.

#2 says – you are a helpless victim of a massive conspiracy. Don’t even try to change. You couldn’t if you wanted to; it’ll only make you depressed and angry, so please hold tight until we get enough funding to help you.

I used to believe in #2 and it led nowhere. Waiting around for someone else to fix your life is a dead end. You’ll die waiting.

UPDATE: Thanks to some thoughtful readers who have sent me links, I understand a little more about Ruby Payne. She seems to have made enemies in some high places. That can be a good, because it means she’s shaking things up and making people think. Her critics seem to have two strong points with which I agree:

  1. She is enriching herself by taking money from the government schools. It’s a fair criticism. Sucking on the teat of the government sow, doesn’t create wealth.
  2. She is a proponent of GWBs No Child Left Behind. I can’t understand how so called conservatives got hoodwinked into centralized education. Washington should have no… and I mean no say over what happens locally. The best way to ensure this is by complete deregulation and privatization of education.


Visit Ruby’s Blog

A couple of Ruby’s most popular books:

A Framework for Understanding Poverty

Hidden Rules of Class at Work

The book that inspired Ruby to create her company:

Creating Money

14 thoughts on “Fighting Poverty”

  1. In response to your anecdote … isn’t the wife/mother responsible for her own suffering for staying with such a lousy husband?

    I will grant that young children have little say in their own degree of suffering, though.

  2. Marina,

    Well, yes, but in most cases I’ve seen (not all) it is the man that acts the least responsible. My Grandmother went through it for twenty years, and the scars have been passed through generations. A common value within male working class culture, is ‘keeping your woman in line’. When I was younger, if I told my buddies I couldn’t got to the bar because it upset my wife, I would have been scorned and ridiculed. I’m not saying it is right, but it was real. The commonly used term I recall was ‘pussy whipped.’

    But I agree, who you pick as a lover or spouse is one of most important life decisions you will make. If you make a bad choice it could set you back for years. Some people never recover.

  3. Mariana,

    I believe a large percentage of American poverty could be eliminated by men simply taking responsibility for their commitments. e.g. spouses and children.

  4. Hi Steve,

    Some good thinking here. One thing though- I think your #1 and #2 options need to be merged. 🙂 I think, like in most cases in life, it’s a both-and.

    If all you talk about is being a victim, it sure totally separates one from a sense of power and ability, which is undeniable. We see people mired in hopelessness every day, and making miserable choices that just compound the problem.

    But, if you ignore the systemic pressures and structures that affect us all, then it’s like sailing a ship while ignoring the tide. The tide has an effect. Remain ignorant of the tide, and you can drown in it.

    I read George Lakoff’s latest book on Freedom, and he writes about the difference between simple cause-effect thinking, and complex systems thinking.

    The usual conservative and progressive political takes usually pick one or the other- progressives often choose the complex systemic thinking, and conservative susually pick the simple cause-effect thinking. Neither holds the whole picture.

    We need both individual responsibility, and an acknowledgement that the economic system in our culture is unsustainable. We need inspiring stories of people who took their fate in their hands and turned their life around, and an acknowledgement that when the equivalent of Katrina hits, expecting individual will power to always prevail is unrealistic, to say the least.

    Thanks for bringing this topic up- it’s very much worth looking at, and I appreciate it.

  5. Mark,
    I just want to say that I value your opinion, but must disagree about the solutions being both #1 and #2.

    There is much evidence to suggest for example that the progressive approach to aid in Africa is actually making things worse.

    Katrina… is an interesting example. It hit one of the poorest areas of the US and I can’t even put into words how I feel about Katrina. But I can say it wasn’t caused by a complex social system, it was caused by a weather system. And I have little faith in government to fix things like Katrina. FEMA is a disaster. Who’s going to rescue them?

    The word sustainable… I agree we can’t sustain this forward march toward larger government and socialism/fascism. It will destroy our freedom. If we don’t re-evaluate where we are headed, freedom will be unsustainable.

    And… about the term ‘progressive.’ It implies that the ‘progressives’ are for progress and all others are against progress. It is one of those terms that I feel stifles debate. Just MHO. They aren’t really progressive, they are socialists which is an old dis proven economic theory that is hardly progressive.

  6. Well, I think there’s plenty of evidence that aid doesn’t work – in any case, it’s more a tool with which richer countries control poorer ones than any sort of real attempt to alleviate poverty. I am a cynic, I freely admit it. Though I must admit to the genuine philanthropy of certain countries such as Norway etc.

    But systemic pressures are also a reality. The street hawker scenes in poorer countries is quite often the centre of some amazing entrepreneurial effort by the poor but they are quite often hampered by corruption of public officials, lack of access to loans etc etc.

    Funnily enough, I think what would help the poor is what would help any country trying to grow an economy really; a decrease in corruption, greater transparency, access to resources (*with* accountability – business loans NOT aid), education etc etc.

    As for the poor in the developed/western world – I’m probably going to get flamed for this, but I suspect it is more of a spiritual poverty than a systemic one. In poorer countries, the enemy is more or less ‘out there’; in wealthier ones, it is within. It’s hard to explain – poor people in developing countries still have a sense of honour, a sense of their place in the world that I don’t necessarily see in the poor here where I live.

    Anyhow, it is always a difficult question with no easy answers.

  7. Maxine,

    You make great points…

    I believe the single biggest cause of poverty in the world is government corruption, followed closely by socialism, followed closely by fascism/mercantilism (some say they died, but they never did, the US system is part fascist and part mercantilist). Free market economics do not create poverty. Well we can’t be sure… we’ve never seen true free markets. Some may say the US was a free market in the 19th century, but it wasn’t. The government was stealing land from natives and giving it to others, slavery was a legal institution, the railroads were given government monopolies, the list goes on and on.

  8. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for your reply- I believe I’m saying something similar to Maxine. No where did I mention large aid gifts, or expecting the government to fix anything. And, as far as ‘progressive’ or ‘conservative’ I’m just using the titles those groups use for themselves- I’m not going to rename them against their wishes, any more than I would rename you something other than, Steve. 🙂

    Now that’s out of the way, I’m still holding my point- that systems have an effect on people. People have personal responsibility, and there are effects on people. It’s far harder for someone born into a inner-city ghetto with drug use and violence all around them to rise above their situation than it is for someone who is raised by a family that makes 6 figures a year, goes to a private school, and has lots of encouragement to succeed financially, as well as many resources.

    I’m afraid that you aren’t going to hear what I’m saying- I’m not saying that people should live as victims- it’s just a fact that when you’re in a storm it’s harder to sail a ship than it is when the sea is calm with a steady wind. That’s all.

    I applaud the success story you shared, and I don’t think it’s a sustainable model for everyone to build a multi-millionaire dollar company to get out of poverty. From my own experience in business, any company that is able to deliver a lot of profit to a single individual is dependent on whole systems supporting that business. For instance, the internet was developed first by the military and by the university system, and was developed through eventually through the efforts of millions of people. That’s a system, and it supports my business.

    I value individual responsibility very highly. And, I think we’re doing ourselves and our communities a disservice when we say it’s the only factor, and ignore the immense impact that systems have on our effectiveness.

  9. Mark,

    No doubt it is harder to escape poverty in the West Jefferies Towers of Detroit. Kids born there are pretty much screwed.

    So I guess we agree in a way, if that is the complex system we are talking about.

    You don’t need to be a multi-millionaire to escape poverty, you just need to create something of value for other people, a job skill. If you work a couple of jobs and manage your money you can get out. The big thing to me is we need to somehow get young men to start taking responsibility in the community and for the women and children around them.

    I’m just curious about creative solutions… The poverty in the West Jefferies Towers of Detroit was IMHO caused by government… So now what… giving things away to the poor gives no incentive to change… so what do we do?

    I hear you… and concede personal responsibility is not the only factor… but it must be an ingedient in the solution…you could give an irresponsible person 40 million dollars and it would make their life worse. We all know that. Money must be earned to create value in your life. Have you read some of the lottery horror stories?

    All I am saying is… blaming other people will get you no where. Waiting for them to fix you will get you no where. If you start to make an effort other people are more likely to help you. The first step toward any goal begins with you. There is no magical complex system bestowing money and rewards upon people. People get rewarded directly in response to the value they create for other people.

  10. Thanks for hearing me, Steve, that does it for me. 🙂 Your original response sounded to me that you thought personal responsibility was 100% of the issue, and I was thinking: “There is no that Steve could be thinking that… I’m going to push a little here.” So thanks for riding it through with me.

    I agree with what you’ve said. I don’t think it’s entirely true that problems in housing projects are caused by the governement- but that’s definitely a factor.

    It’s an interesting balance. We count on the government for quite a few things that private companies don’t do nearly as well: fire departments, road building, public utlities (we had Enron up here in Oregon, so you can see if I’m leery of private control of public utlities), the USPS, etc, etc. And, there many things it doesn’t do very efficiently, but the USPS has still got to be one of the best values out there.

    And, without personal responsibility, well… let’s just say things degenerate.

    Thanks again for the conversation.

  11. I am a teacher and former community organizer who has worked in low-income communities for nearly thirty years. I believe that Ruby Payne has done great damage to students over the years by providing an analysis and advice that many teachers want to hear instead of providing an accurate analysis of the challenges students face.

    I would recommend that people read an excellent article by Paul Gorski that appeared in Rethinking Schools ( to get a different view of Ruby Payne than what appeared in The New York Times.

    Thank you for pointing out the NYT article. I had not heard about it.

  12. I found your website after you left a comment on Joe itale’s blog.

    All I can say is WOW!.

    You have so much interesting content on your site that it will take me awhile to read all of them.

    Do you have a main website, or site that tells us what you do?

    thanks and keep up the amazing writing



  13. True. It’s a common trait for most of us to be jealous with successful person, especially if we compare ourselves with them before they were successful and kept on wondering why they became successful since you both have the same lifestyle..

  14. I wonder why most of us keep on envying other that are successful instead of learning from them. We know that experience is a good source of knowledge and learning from experienced people, especially from successful people will teach us great lessons.

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