A simple definition of poverty is a lack of basic resources that leads to insecurity about the future. In her classic book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, Dr. Ruby Payne lists 8 resources people in poverty lack. Resource #8 is lack of knowing the hidden rules of culture.
KNOWLEDGE OF HIDDEN RULES refers to knowing the unspoken cues and habits of a group. In the United States we have three clearly defined sub-cultures based on economics. We call these sub-cultures Upper-Class, Middle-Class, and Lower-Class. Those living in generational poverty belong to a sub-culture that is different from the culture of the Lower-Class often referred to as the “poverty culture.”
Culture could be defined as the way a group of people do life together and includes ways of thinking, ways of acting, and material objects. Every culture (including sub-cultures) have rules that are familiar to people in that culture but would be unfamiliar to people outside that culture. These rules are “hidden” in that they are learned through the socialization process and taken for granted by the people living in that culture. The people in the culture considers these rules “normal” and “common sense” without realizing many of those rules are not known (or at least not interpreted the same way) outside that culture.
For example, I was born and raised in the South (a sub-culture). In the South everyone knows (assumption) you hold the door open for each other, say “yes Ma’am” and “No Sir,” drink sweet-tea, fry your vegetables, refer to all soft-drinks as “Coke,” watch football on Saturday, and go to church on Sunday. These things are “common-sense” to people in the South.
When it comes to class, Dr. Payne writes, “Knowledge of hidden rules is crucial to whatever class in which the individual wishes to live. Hidden rules exist in poverty, in middle class, and in wealth…Hidden rules are about the salient, unspoken understandings that cue the members of the group that this individual does or does not fit in. For example, three of the hidden rules in poverty are the following: The noise level is high (the TV is always on and everyone talks at once), the most important information is non-verbal, and one of the main values of an individual to the group is the ability to entertain. There are hidden rules about food, dress, decorum, etc. Generally, in order to successfully move from one class to the next, it is important to have a spouse or mentor from the class to which you wish to move to model and teach you the hidden rules.”
Have you ever wondered why lottery winners from the lower-class usually end up back in the lower-class? Have you ever wondered why people from poverty who “make-it” through sports or entertainment end up broke? At least part of the answer is they did not know the hidden-rules of the upper class and so they were never accepted into that culture. This answer further shows that remaining in poverty or getting out of poverty involves far more than finances.
It is impossible to fully discuss this issue and the implications it has. Dr. Payne’s book is worth the cost for her treatment of this subject alone. In her book she includes several charts and “quizzes” you can take to see how well you know the hidden rules of each class. Here is just a sampling of what she says:
Some Hidden Rules of Class
- In the Lower-Class money is to be spent; in the Middle-Class money is to be managed; in the Upper-Class money is to be invested.
- In the Lower-Class the social emphasis is on including people you like; in the Middle-Class the social emphasis is on self-governance and self-sufficiency; in the Upper-Class the social emphasis is on social exclusion.
- When it comes to food the Lower-Class asks, “Did you have enough?”; the Middle-Class asks, “Did you like it?”; the Upper-Class asks, “Was it presented well?”
- In the Lower-Class language is casual and about survival; in the Middle-Class language is formal and about negotiation; in the Upper-Class language is formal and about networking.
- In the Lower-Class families tend to be matriarchal; in the Middle-Class families tend to be patriarchal; in the Upper-Class it’s about which side of the family has the most money and best pedigree.
Things You Need to Know to Survive in Poverty:
- How to get someone out of jail.
- How to physically fight and defend yourself.
- How to live without a banking account.
- How to live without electricity and a phone.
- How to get by without a car.
- How to move in half a day.
- Where the free medical clinics are.
Things You Need to Know to Survive in the Middle-Class:
- How to get your children into a sports program, piano lessons, dance classes, etc…
- How to properly set a table.
- How to order in a restaurant.
- How to get the best interest rate for a loan.
- How to help your child apply for college.
- How to help your children with their homework or know where to get help.
- The ability to repair things that break around the house immediately by either doing it yourself or calling a repairman.
- How to read a menu in French, English, and at least one other language.
- Have at least two residences that are fully staffed and maintained.
- Have a favorite restaurant in another country.
- How to host “parties” that key people attend.
- How to read a cooperate financial statement.
- Serve on the board of at least two charities.
There are two aspects of the lack of hidden rules I want to leave you with:
- People in poverty will have a difficult time getting out of poverty if they don’t have a mentor who can teach them the hidden rules of the Middle-Class.
- People desiring to minister to and help people in poverty will become frustrated and burn out if they do not engross themselves into the lower-class culture and learn the hidden rules of that culture. It amazes me how the church will spend millions of dollars a year teaching missionaries the cultures they will be living in and we don’t even spend a dime educating ourselves about the culture of poverty before we try and minister to people in poverty.