Poor people will be best prepared to deal with a severe economic depression.

June 14, 2008 | By | 3 Replies More

Who is best prepared to deal with a severe economic depression?

Based on the work of educator and author Ruby Payne, the best survivors in difficult economic times might be those who are in the lowest economic class, those in “generational poverty.” Payne has spent her career studying the mindsets of economic classes and studying the best methods for crossing socioeconomic lines in education, work, and for social change. Her best known work is A Framework for Understanding Poverty (1998).

To understand Payne, it is important to understand her distinction between generational poverty and situational poverty.

Generational poverty [as opposed to situational poverty] is defined as two or more generations living in poverty. People in generational poverty exhibit certain ingrained patterns of behavior. These patterns are the result of having experienced the effects of poverty over time. The behaviors are part of their culture. For this reason, even though these individuals tend to have a much lower level of educational attainment, they do tend to have better coping and life skills than those in situational poverty.

The above is from a college outline produced by Kerri McCormack.

According to Payne, there are, indeed, class distinctions here in America and there is much more to these class distinctions than the amount of money the people possessed. We are each driven by a set of “hidden rules” that drive us along like psychological tectonic plates.

Hidden rules are the unspoken cues that dictate behavior. But these hidden rules apply to much more than just behaviors and actions. They are part of the culture of each socioeconomic class. These hidden rules are the basis for how individuals make decisions. For example, in the middle class, the driving forces for decision-making are work and achievement. In the wealthy class, decisions are based upon social, financial, and political connections. In generational poverty, survival, relationships, and entertainment are the forces that determine decisions.

What are some specific “hidden rules”? Payne has identified many of them (and this list is, again, from the McCormack Outline). They sound stereotypical, but they also ring true to me.

Food – Quantity vs. quality
Wealthy – The presentation of the food, making it aesthetically appealing, is what is important
Middle Class – The quality of the food is what is important
Generational Poverty – It is about quantity; having enough is what matters

Fighting – How conflicts are resolved
Wealthy – Done through social exclusion and lawyers
Middle Class – Done verbally; issues are discussed
Generational Poverty – Done physically with fists and bodies

The World – How individuals see themselves in the world
Wealthy – Part of the international / global world
Middle Class – National; staying within the continent
Generational Poverty – Local; rarely leaving the state or even the county

Possessions – What is important to own
Wealthy – One-of-a-kind objects, legacies, and pedigrees
Middle Class – Material items (cars, electronic gadgets, clothes, etc.)
Generational Poverty – People and relationships

Love and Acceptance – What determines love and acceptance
Wealthy – Whether the individual is connected and has social standing
Middle Class –Achievements and success
Generational Poverty –Whether the individual is liked

The images this list triggers for me are startling (and humorous). Imagine, during a severe depression, the class of people who have previously coped by drawing on their social prestige and constantly relying on their cell phones and wealth to get others to work for them. Compare the people with such a “wealthy” mindset with those who have had to fend for themselves for their entire lifetimes. There will be a steep learning curve only for the former.

The question, again, is who is best prepared to survive a severe and extended economic hardship? I’m writing this post to point out the irony. When a depression hits hard, those of us who are middle or upper class might find it worth our while to study the coping skills of those who have already proved themselves by surviving generational poverty.

It’s not that the middle and upper classes have nothing to contribute during desperate times. According to Payne’s theory, people of moderate or extreme wealth would be best placed to make long range changes regarding extended economic depression because they aren’t fatalistic (those in generational poverty tend to be fatalistic) and they tend to see beyond the immediate present (those in generational poverty have difficulty doing this).


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Category: Consumerism, Economy, Friendships/relationships, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    There is another facet of generational poverty. Those who have lived their lives in poverty, learn the necessary skills for basic survival with little or no money.

    A lesson to be learned comes from the reconstruction period following the American Civil War.Part of the terms of surrender prohibited anyone who had served as a Confederate Officer from holding an elected position.This excluded everyone with educational background from having an administrative position in the state and local governments.This void was filled by opportunistic conmen from the northern states who were known as "Carpet-Baggers". Within months, under the control of corrupt officials and incompetent civil service workers, the former Confederate states were plunged into a level of poverty that is difficult to imagine.

    Most of the South remained in this condition until WWII. History texts tend to focus on the prosperity of the rest of the nation during the years between the Civil war and the great depression and ignore the abject poverty of the south. When the great depression came along, generations of southerners had already adapted to a life style with little or no money.

  2. Alison says:

    It's not really surprising at all, but I liked seeing that itemized list. I've discussed, often, the disadvantage we have here in the U.S. of widespread knowledge of material goods. Everywhere we go, we see ads or displays or product placement in entertainment that reminds us of the things we could buy. Intangible value is attached to those things to make us think we SHOULD buy them. There is a negative association with being in the minority among our social group(s) if we DON'T buy them!

    People who are raised without all these THINGS can have a more pragmatic view of their value, and people living in poverty situations that reduce or eliminate the exposure to even the knowledge that these things exist are in many ways better off. Not only can they want what they have instead of feeling they have to have what they want, but they have the experience of making do or doing without. They might not enjoy coping with poverty, but the rest of us might not even be able to cope with it!

    I spent my life with varying degrees of financial stability, but very little of it actually involved hard choices about where the money had to go. Even though I was able to do it back then, I know for certain that it would be nearly impossible to do it now. The compromises and sacrifices I have to make at this point are negligible. I've forgotten what it's like to have to put items back at the supermarket checkout, and what the minimum is that I can pay the utilities so I don't get shut off. This really is some food for thought.

  3. Shelley says:

    Good blog!

    This report doesnt' surprise me one bit.

    My father always lectured his kids that learning and doing hard physical work for low pay without complaint would arm us for any 'hard times' in our futures.

    Thus-if one had to resort to diggin' ditches for a paycheck-you thank your lucky stars you CAN dig ditches.

    I've not forgotten his lesson-I know I can survive any economic condition.

    However I prefer the 'good times'. 🙂

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