COLUMN: How 'hidden rules' could help kids and families lift themselves out of poverty

'There are hidden rules of every class'

BROOKVILLE, Ind. -- Kids living in poverty have lots of strikes against them. And not understanding the "hidden rules" of the middle class is one of the big ones.

That's what veteran educator Lisa Baudendistal explained during a training session called "Bridging the Gap to Work with Children in Poverty." The Indiana Youth Institute, Franklin County-based community health organization Stayin' Alive and United Way of Franklin County teamed up to host the session in Brookville.

I attended to get a better understanding of what educators and others on the front lines should know when they are working directly with kids and families living in poverty.

Lisa Baudendistal stands before a group to talk about how to work with children in poverty..

Baudendistal explained that helping poor kids and families learn those hidden rules of the middle class is an important part of helping them find a path out of poverty. That's because school, college and the world of work are all built around those rules and values. Anyone who doesn't understand them is at a tremendous disadvantage.

RELATED: Child poverty is worse than we thought

"There are hidden rules of every class," she told me after the presentation. "With poverty, something that is central is relationships, and I'm just worried about survival and just taking care of those basic needs."

The middle class, on the other hand, is more focused on achievement. The concern isn't simply for surviving from day to day but also to looking ahead -- planning for college and careers and, eventually, retirement.

"If they have any hope of being successful," she told me, "they need to understand what the hidden rules are of the middle class. In order for a student to be successful -- for an adult to be successful -- they have to be able to follow those hidden rules of the middle class."

Anyone who aims to help families find a path out of poverty must understand that -- and that goes for the Child Poverty Collaborative here in Cincinnati, too, said Sherman Bradley, co-pastor of New Life Covenant Cincinnati and founder and CEO of a nonprofit called Consider the Poor.

Who found the hidden rules?

Both Baudendistal and Bradley learned about the hidden rules through the work of Ruby Payne, an author, speaker and educator who is an expert on the mindsets of different economic classes and overcoming poverty.

Payne's company trains others in her philosophy and findings so they, in turn, can spread the knowledge. Baudendistal and Bradley both are trainers in Payne's approaches that are explained in depth in her books A Framework for Understanding Poverty and Bridges Out of Poverty, which she co-authored.

I first heard of Ruby Payne from Dave Phillips. Phillips and his wife, Liane, are co-founders of Cincinnati Works, the Downtown-based nonprofit organization that helps people in poverty get jobs that to put them on a path toward self-sufficiency.

Cincinnati Works helps chronically unemployed people understand the rules of the workplace that they never learned. Over the 20 years since it started, Cincinnati Works has helped thousands of people get and keep jobs that pay a decent wage.

That means the organization has helped thousands of families, of course.

But I didn't relate the Cincinnati Works approach to helping kids directly until I heard Baudendistal explain it.

Consider: If you are a child whose family has lived in poverty for generations, chances are you don't have a close relative who has graduated from college and has a successful career. In fact, it's more likely that many of your close, adult relatives didn't graduate from high school. Many of them probably had unpleasant experiences at school while they were there.

And even if your mom or dad or both thinks school is really important, you probably don't get help with your homework from them if they're working several jobs to keep food on the table and counting on your older brother, sister or cousin to watch you so they can work nights.

The fact that your mom or dad can't go meet with your teacher during the school day doesn't mean they don't care about you. It probably means they can't leave work or they don't get paid.

"I had a parent one time that worked three miles to come to a case conference, and I was in awe," Baudendistal said. "I had to ask myself, if I were in her shoes, would I just not have shown up? If you're a parent that has no transportation or you only have enough gas to get to and from work, would that meeting be as important to you?"

Educate and empower

The tricky part of these hidden rules, of course, is that they're hidden.

"Each class assumes the other class knows the rules," Bradley explained when I called him to discuss the issue. "And that assumption leads to misunderstanding, misinterpretation and lack of trust."

Sherman Bradley Photo by Emily Maxwell | WCPO

That's why it's so important for initiatives such as the Child Poverty Collaborative to include the voices and perspectives of people living in poverty and people who work within impoverished communities, Bradley said.

"We typically, like the welfare system, sit at high levels in a big building, come up with a process and then go to the poor and implement it on them," he said.

That can lead to the creation of programs and solutions that people in poverty don't necessarily want or respect, he said.

The Child Poverty Collaborative only reaches as far as Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

But Baudendistal stressed that schools, nonprofits and government agencies that work with children living in poverty throughout the Tri-State region can help by remembering the three things that help people move out of poverty:

• Education

• Relationships and

• Employment

That doesn't mean holding the hands of kids and parents all the way through the education system in a way that makes them dependent upon you, she said.

"We should take care of our children, but we should also empower them," she said. "You've got to set that expectation high. Because if you don't, you're just giving them a crutch. And if you take that crutch away, what happens? They crash and burn."

Baudendistal's entire training session only lasted two hours. She and Bradley spent much more time delving into the specifics of Payne's work and approaches before they became trainers in her methods.

But even that brief exposure made a lot of sense to me based on the work I have done reporting about poverty over the past couple of years.

As the Child Poverty Collaborative continues its conversations throughout the community, I hope the people listening and the people talking can get past the assumptions and drill down to what local families need most to stop the cycle of generational poverty and chart a better path for their kids.

More information is available online about Ruby Payne and her approach, the Indiana Youth Institute, Consider the Poor and the Child Poverty Collaborative.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, to go www.wcpo.com/poverty.

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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