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).