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Hidden rules define social classes, cause confusion

The story goes that F. Scott Fitzgerald once commented to Ernest Hemingway, “The rich are very different from you and I.” Ever the cynic, Hemingway replied, “Yes, they have more money.”

Yes, the rich have more money, but that’s not all they have. According to researcher Ruby Payne of Texas, the rich, the middle class and those living in poverty each have a unique set of hidden rules.

These rules guide everyday behavior, form the basis for decisions and determine membership in one of the three economic classes.

Payne, a professional educator and author of the book A Framework for Understanding Poverty, has spent several years sharing her insights about the cultures of poverty, middle-class and wealth.

Briefly, she suggests that each culture teaches a unique set of hidden rules to its members and, while the rules are unspoken, they form a handbook for behavior within the group.

As an example, the business and educational communities follow middle-class rules. And, because of that, people living with generational poverty (defined as living in poverty for two generations or more) do not have the tools to function adequately in school or at work, where middle-class rules apply.

Hidden rules have to do with attitudes about money, relationships, education, possessions and more. Basically, the driving forces for those living in poverty are survival, relationships and entertainment.

That’s why a person living in poverty is more likely to spend a financial windfall on concert tickets or a big- screen television than on saving for a rainy day.

Middle-class people are driven by achievement and work. Because they feel they must manage their money, a financial windfall might go into a child’s college fund.

Those living in wealth are driven by political, social and financial connections and might be likely to re-invest any additional money.

What this means for people living in poverty is that, to rephrase Hemingway, poverty is more than a lack of money. It’s also a lack of knowledge of the middle-class rules that lead to success in a world driven by those rules.

It may be troubling to think of America as a society of classes, but recognition of the class differences can provide valuable insight into the reasons why some people face internal barriers to basic financial security.

Just as in sports, if you want to play and succeed at the game, you must know the rules. It’s as simple as that. The rules are arbitrary and confusing, but they exist. You can’t succeed unless you know the rules and follow them.

It’s important to remember that knowledge of the hidden rules of each class forms a basis for understanding people. If we approach people arrogantly believing that middle-class rules are the “right” rules, we are using this knowledge inappropriately.

If we are going to help people, especially children, to succeed, we must know not only the rules of people living in poverty, but we must also articulate middle-class rules and teach them to others.

For children in school, this means learning the rules that will help them succeed in school and at work.

Many of the greatest frustrations teachers and administrators have with students from poverty are related to knowledge of the hidden rules.

Students living in generational poverty don’t know middle-class hidden rules. Educators don’t know the hidden rules of generational poverty. What results is an incapacitating spiral of increasing frustration, fueled by ignorance and resolved only through education and insight.

Susan Hazelton is a student at Boise State University.