September 22, 2021

Poverty and Talent Gaps with Ruby Payne, Educator & Author

Dana Safa

1Huddle Podcast Episode #58

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Ruby Payne, nationally acclaimed advisor on poverty in education, author of A Framework for Understanding Poverty, and Founder of the aha! Process. Payne has educated more than 100,000 professionals on economic class mindsets. 

On this episode of Bring It In season two, Payne sat down with Sam and discussed poverty, talent gaps, and stabilizing individuals’ realities.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 


Below are some of the insights Payne shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “Your relationships are more important to your stability than your work because work is too unpredictable.”
  • “We have so narrowly defined talent to the point where we’ve killed it.”
  • “We knock talent out at every place and then we wonder why we don’t have any.”


Sam: Maybe Ruby, the best way to start is, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey and aha process? 

Ruby: Sure. I started out as a K-12 educator and probably germane to the conversation is that I actually grew up on a farm in Ohio as a Mennonite, which is a religion, somewhat like an Amish, but more modern. Both pacifists. I did get kicked out, long story there. But I started out as a K12 educator, so I’ve always been fascinated by learning and how people know what they know and how they decide how to live. 

And as a result of that, I was in the K-12 business directly for 22 years, six of those, I worked with regional service centers, which are the agencies between the state department and the local districts. We did tons of training. I saw many different models of schooling and leadership. 

Then I started my own company with the book. I wrote a framework on understanding poverty and started my own company, which I’ve had for 25 years. How I got interested in poverty is that my former husband who died in 2010 was a mix of Cherokee and Caucasian.

He came out of extreme poverty, generational poverty, and situational. But his family was the smartest family I’ve ever met in my life. He has three siblings with an IQ over 150. He has a sibling with an IQ of 160 photographic memory. Now, if you know anything about intelligence or how it’s measured, when you get to 145, your three standard deviations beyond the norm, you get to 160 you’re four standard deviations from the norm. It becomes incredibly difficult to fit. And in this particular case, you have a lot of issues there. And interestingly enough, the three with the highest IQs never really developed their talent.

Sam: When you mentioned the education business, Ruby, how are schools doing right now?

Ruby: I’m fascinated by cognition, how people know what they know and how they negotiate their realities. And I’ve done work around the world, I lived in Haiti for three and a half months and studied poverty and service. And one of the things is, is that with the K-12 business, the train got off the track with common core.

For this reason, they forgot about conceptual learning. And they went straight to skill-based learning, and that the concept was we’re going to break up learning into these discrete skills that we can measure. So in that process, they forgot about conceptual frames, and in the research on schema, the cognitive research, well, let’s go back and look at the research on situated learning. 

When you know that 95% of the brain is structured by the time you’re six, one of the things you understand is that a lot of that structuring occurs in the reality you’re in and it’s without formal education. And it’s based upon the understanding of the people around you.

And what happens in that frame, then, you learn how to negotiate a reality. So you have conceptual frames that you use called schema. And when we went to these discrete objectives, then people didn’t have anywhere to put the information, your brain groups in patterns, your brain is a pattern making mechanism and groups in patterns, and when you take away conceptual frames or kids then it kind of has no place to go. 

Sam: Sure. I mean, it’s interesting that the point you’re bringing up, cause I feel like today an area that you have a lot of expertise in, there’s almost like a gap in how we learn how to learn. Is that fair to say?

Ruby: Very much so. So if you read the work of Rabe and Wener, they looked at how people learn. Situated learning, and they learned in situations. And you’re co authored in your learning. What happens if you look at Feuerstein’s work, who did some of the best cognitive research early on that the computer industry borrowed very heavily from. 

Basically, Piaget was the biologist who researched Pavlov’s dog, stimulus-response, et cetera. Feuerstein was his brilliant Israeli educator. He studied under Piaget and he’d say that if a person has the right stimulus and the right amount of time, you’ll get a response. He said, how do you account for individual differences?

And Piaget said, I don’t, because I’m a biologist. I care about accommodation and assimilation. I don’t care about individual differences. Feuerstein also studied under Rogatsky who was a Russian psychologist and Rogasky believed that learning was mediated. And so Feuerstein came out with this model that said basically a mediation model, which is this. It’s a, what, why, how a model at the very simplest. The adult, you have a caring relationship that points out to you what you’re supposed to pay attention to, watch you pay attention to here’s why, and here’s how you do it. For example, we say to young children, don’t cross that street without looking. Why? You could get killed. Strategies, look both ways twice, that’s mediated learning. 

Dow requires a knowledge base and an information base. And that gets transmitted intergenerationally. University of Chicago did research and found that if you are in a high poverty neighborhood, two generations or more, your IQ drops by a half the standard deviation just because of the transfer of knowledge. So with a lot of talent development now, still to this day, people are doing a lot of work with job skills on job application, but they’re not doing much with the conceptual frames you have to have to make sense.

Sam: Profess to, I guess, how do we get on the right track?

Ruby: It’s not hard to get on the right track, but you don’t start out with measuring discreet. I don’t know if you’ve looked at testing, but I just did in December worked with the middle school in Ohio, which is on the list of underperforming schools. We looked at state assessment items because most of them had never seen them. And they’re horrible. I mean, my son has a Ph.D. in biophysics. I sent him a math one. He couldn’t answer it. I have a master’s degree in literature. I couldn’t answer some of them. And these are seventh graders. These were middle school kids.

So the bottom line is so specific and so discreet that if you don’t have the conceptual frames for them, you can’t even answer the questions because they assume a conceptual frame. So you asked how do we begin to educate that? And one of the things you have to teach kids is pattern-making, how to group, and you have to teach attributes.

And a lot of that is in the cognitive research that was used in the 1970s in schools. And so what happened in the 1980s, they were dropped out of the curriculum. For example, they no longer teach multiplication in school, and one of the reasons is that multiplication is basically a mathematical conceptual frame, and so it’s been dropped.

Sam: Your message on the assessment resonates in Newark, New Jersey, where we are. We worked with the city who has adopted a standardized test that they use. And if you’re an out of work worker, and these are probably predominantly folks where poverty is their reality. They’re vulnerable populations. They have a requirement for you to take this standardized federally approved test. And I think when we started working with them, there’s a good 20% passage rate on this, and simply to gain access to any career counseling. And it’s mind blowing that that barrier, because in some ways these tests are being used as barriers to entry for certain people.

Ruby: It’s not some ways. It’s a constant board. And let me say this; What has happened is this, if you’re in the school business, it’s relevance rigor. They have a model, Relevance, Rigor, Relationships if you want kids to learn. There’s tons of rigor. And the assessments they have, they have formulas for text complexity, but they have no standards for relevance.

So the bottom line, I’ll just give you this one example. I wrote an article about this because I was so angry. Because I felt like we are destroying kids before they ever get a chance to get started. But on language arts, for example, just talk about no relevance. Of all the sample test items I looked at for middle school kids, only one had a minority child in the story, and I could find no minority authors and it was literature that was 300 years old.

So there’s no relevance there, By relevance I mean there was no reference to lived experience, you have no criteria for it. Like one of the test questions that I objected to in Texas was this one for a third grader writing prompt: “Describe your closet in detail.” Now that assumes that you have a closet, that assumes that you aren’t homeless, that assumes you’re not living in your car.

I said, why didn’t she write a prompt like this? “Tell us about a time in your life or describe a time in your life when you were unhappy or happy.” That’s a universal experience. Why would you choose a lived experience that 20% of your kids don’t have? So there was no relevance criteria.

And the other problem with state assessments, and one of the reasons they knocked so many people out, is there no review process. Except they’ll say, well, we let a group of teachers look at it, but the teachers don’t control whether those items ever get on the test or not. And no one gets to go back around the hide and say, this was a bad item.

It’s a very close, secretive process. So there’s no transparency. So you can’t vet items that are really inappropriate. So they need criteria for relevancy.

Sam: As you’re talking, one of the things I think about is just the present news cycle over the last five days. It feels like there’s a heck of a lot of news that is picking on workers, maybe is the softest way for me to say. I had a flight the other day and I was in the airport and I think that all three newspapers on the news stand had a front cover article talking about workers being characterized as lazy or taking advantage of unemployment benefits or staying at home. 

I want to get your opinion on this because I think that so many, today there’s one in two American jobs or what some economists would call bad jobs, paying folks below the poverty line to do work. There’s a lot of different realities that impact folks that are living in poverty that have to go to work every day. What’s your take on this moment, as we think about our workforce and poverty?

Ruby: One of the issues is that if I were in poverty right now, and I could make twice as much money at home on unemployment, believe me, I would not be going back to work.

One of the issues in poverty is that employers think that there’s not intelligence there. There is intelligence there. But how it’s presented is not considered appropriate. Let me give you an example. One of the things we know from the research is that educated or stable households, which is what I call middle class, people speak with what is called formal register. It’s words that are in writing. So it’s necessary for a business community, it’s necessary for the legal community. You have to put things in writing when somebody is not there so there’s some sort of agreement. Word choice is quite specific. 

But among friends, what you talk is casual register. So casual register is what you see in texting. Here’s the problem. If I go into a job interview and I say, I ain’t got none, or I do a media interview, and I say, I ain’t got none, the immediate assumption is that I’m not intelligent. Language is learned. And so what we find is that the ability to use the abstract languages, informal register.

But what we know is that if you come out on a financially poor household, you only have half the words. So what happens then when somebody explains itself to the media, and they use the casual register, the immediate understanding is, well, they’re just not very bright.

Sam: There’s an argument to be made today that there really isn’t a skills gap. There’s an experience gap. There’s also a gap in the hiring and selection process. There’s a lot of bias in what HR roles may look for when they’re trying to evaluate a new hire. How do you think about skill gaps because of that? Cause I mean, to your point, you might hear someone using the informal register and it might classify them as not being educated, and then you might turn around and say to your boss, I can’t find someone to fill this role because I can’t find the right skills. 

Ruby: Well, there is a skills gap. That’s true. But part of what’s misunderstood is there’s not an intelligence gap. There is a skills gap and there’s a gap with learned negotiation of environments. For example, I’m an employer. Hey, I’ve got 20 employees. I’ve done this for 25 years. Okay. One of the things is when you start, we have a program called workplace stability in which we help employers stabilize the workplace for individuals whose external reality is unstable.

Part of what happens is when your external reality is unstable, then you’re going to bring that instability into the workplace. So what happens is that it gets translated a lot if there’s not the skills here. They can’t plan. They can’t get here on time. They can’t do this. They can’t do that. Well, really the external reality is unstable. And the understandings of how you negotiate. 

Let me give you just one example here quickly. I think this will clarify why people call it skills, but when you’re in a stable environment, like middle-class okay, your driving force, no matter where you are around the world, time is the defining factor for people. They have 24 hours a day. How do you take that time and your resource space, you put it on an axis and you manipulate it so that you can meet your needs. Middle-class driving force is three things; work, achievement, and material security. So what the middle-class does is they spend their time at work, they go to school to get a better job and they buy things that become an asset, like material security. Add more to each, right?

Middle-class has, I’m going to ground your question just indirectly, but you’ll see it in a minute. So that’s your driving force. So work is really important. It’s part of your stability package. In wealth, you have a different problem. Your problem is you have too many resources and so you have to pay people to help you. And that makes you vulnerable on a personal safety level. They can rob you, they can kidnap you. So your deal about money and your time is that you’re going to use your financial, your political, and your social connections, because they keep you stable and safe. But in poverty, if you’ve been there for two generations, then your problem is this; Your work is for males. It’s unpredictable. Unemployment is part of the picture. 

The second thing that happens is what keeps you alive are relationships. So you make your decisions against survival relationships in entertainment because that is what allows you to stabilize your environment and keep going.

Money is shared. It’s communal. The problem is this, your relationships are more important to your stability than your work because work is too unpredictable. So what you do to stabilize your environment is different from what someone who is an educated household uses to stabilize their environment. So the way that translates in middle classes, is they don’t have the skills. 

Sam: Got it. It’s super fascinating. As you’re talking, I just think that this is like a masterclass for any HR person that wakes up any day and he’s trying to think about how do you connect with every worker in your workforce at all corners, not just one segment, which oftentimes, it might be only a few groups that get access to maybe the training to close or address certain skill gaps? 

Ruby: Well, for example, we have a guy in our warehouse. We’ve done a lot of activities to stabilize him. One of the things that happens in generational poverty, it’s not unusual, there are legal issues, there are debt issues, there are all kinds of other issues that have to be stabilized cause you miss too much work. So it’s easy for employers to say, I’m not going to spend my money helping you stabilize your environment. Well, then the problem is you lose your money and retention in turnover.

So we say to employers, Hey, if you don’t want to spend six, seven grand a person in turnover, which is what it costs you, then let’s look at some tools that don’t cost you nearly as much money to stabilize your workforce. And we’ve been able to say, it’s a much bigger picture than skills. It’s your understanding of how the workplace works. 

Sam: Has anything changed from your view since COVID? COVID has made a direct impact on every part of work in our communities, are you finding yourself talking more on a specific topic today than you were a year ago? 

Ruby: Yes. We’re not talking much about financial poverty. Now we’re talking about emotional poverty.

One of the things that’s really entering the workplace right now, and is a significant issue in talent development, is the emotional stamina you have to have to develop expertise and the amount of stability you have to have to develop expertise is basically gone in generational poverty.

People don’t understand, you have to have a certain amount of physical stability to learn, and you have to have a certain amount of physical stability to negotiate the workplace. 

Sam: It makes perfect sense. I’ve never heard it said that way, to have stability in order to be in a position to learn it. It’s super, super powerful. I have one closing question. Ruby, so much about what we’re doing today or when you turn on the news, you hear future of work this and future of work that. The future work is all over the place. I think too often, it’s a conversation around robots showing up and taking everybody’s work from them.

So I’d like to ask you what your hope is for the future of work. 

Ruby: I would love it to be about the development of talent. I mean, there’s so much undeveloped talent out there. I was in a school, they had a sixth-grade kid, extreme poverty. He made a gasoline engine out of aluminum pop cans by himself. Come on. That’s talent.

And we have so narrowly defined talent to the point where we’ve killed it. Right now, if you don’t take four years of math in high school, you’re out. You can’t go on to college. We find it so narrowly. And let me give you one example. We’ve gone to, in our schooling system, we’ve gone to a strictly abstract representational knowledge basis. It would be like saying to adults, look, you can’t have a driver’s license until you take a class and pass a class in thermodynamics. Let’s just say physics, let’s make it simpler, in physics, so you understand the velocity and mass and speed, and then we say, and you can’t have the driver’s license to pass the class in neurobiology so you understand addiction and its impact on your ability to drive. To think about how many people would never get a driver’s license. It’s stupid, but we do that to kids. So everything, we knock talent out at every place, and then we wonder why we don’t have any. 

I’m distraught, but I have preached till I’m done. You don’t get talent the way we’re doing it right now. 

Sam: One recommendation, if you’re a CEO out there listening, and one word of advice? 

Ruby: To the CEOs, I think Google right now has the best model. Here’s what Google’s model is. We don’t care what your degrees are. Here are three problems. Can you solve them? And how would you solve them? What Google’s doing right now with their certification that they’re doing online, you don’t have to have any degrees. You don’t have anything, they make it so you basically don’t have to pay for the course.

Do you have that? If I were CEO right now and I were looking for talent, what I would do is I would start in middle school, and I would find out who these kids are. We’re losing males by the droves, because males bond over activities, not over conversation. Male brains learn more if they have movement.

So one of the things is I would be looking at who are the outliers, who are the kids that don’t fit the norm. There is talent there, it takes talent not to fit the norm. And the thing of it is, I would look for those kids and then I would put together some sort of, I’d buy computers and I say, look, let me show you some basic things. I make it competitive. I’d say, can you do this? Let’s play this game.I would find the talent, but it’s not being developed right now for kids in poverty very well in all K-12. 

Sam: Yeah, we’ve got a lot of work to do. We were just timely this past week, our team joined a cleanup of the Passaic River here in Newark with the all men’s rowing team at a local high school, how about this? They have to jog four and a half miles. It’s called St. Benedict’s prep. They have to jog four and a half miles every day after school to get to the only slip to get into the water. It’s an all-black men’s crew team. They have to jog four and a half miles because there’s not anything closer. And they’re trying to focus inward on their community and it was awesome to see local companies come out, be a part of that because what you just said, middle school, like, I was just thinking high school, but you’re right. We should be talking to start even younger. 

Ruby: I’ve worked all across the United States working world, but right now, because of COVID, and this is something schools don’t want to admit because of ADA, they cannot find or get in touch with 20% of the kids.

I know this is a fact because I’ve talked to tons of educators and here’s the issue in middle and high school. The dropout numbers in the United States are incorrect for this reason. They use graduation rates, which you start with the freshmen class in high school, and when you look at how many of them graduated from college from high school in four years, but that’s not when kids drop out.

In poverty, the males in particular, and the females drop out between eighth and ninth grade, they just don’t show up. And one of the things is, that’s why I said middle school. That’s where we lose them. That one research project I was involved in, you could predict who would make it out of high school based on their sixth-grade grades.

So you want to look at that frame. There’s unbelievable talent. It’s just not developed. It’s not discipline. It’s not channeled. So we’re asking them questions about 300-year-old poetry.

Sam: That said, it’s why it doesn’t make any sense. I mean, I put the tape, it was called the TABE test, a federal test. Anybody out of work has to pass it to access career training, which is by the way crazy because we should just be giving career training to local folks who want to do it. We brought the practice tests back to our office and I had some of our team, and they couldn’t get through it to your point. It’s just, it’s stupid. I think you said stupid. I agree. 

Ruby: We have a program called by world that we’ve taken 90,000 adults in poverty through, and we help them stabilize their realities. And it’s just good, common sense stuff about their lives. What do they want to do with them? Here’s the information basis. You probably didn’t get to choose for two years and one community took 10 individuals 34 people with their families and it was a $2.1 million return to their community annually. There are ways to do it. We’re doing it. 

Sam: Ruby, if people want to follow up with you, how can they do that? 

Ruby: Go to If they want to dive in. There are all kinds of info there. There are two books on a website you might want to get. Why Don’t They Just Get a Job? and it’s a foundation we work with in Cincinnati, Ohio, and he’s been phenomenally successful, but one of the things he provides is a lot of mental health support and the other one is Workplace Stability that will give you ideas about what workplaces can do to stabilize.

But thank you for all you do, Sam.

Sam: Thanks, take care Ruby.

Topics discussed: Poverty, Skills Gaps, Experience Gaps, Intergenerational Wealth, Education, Workforce, Talent, Work, Jobs

Dana Safa Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle