Exiting the Deficit Dumpster

I recently came across the following article from Ruby Payne after speaking with an administrator at my college — someone who I respect a great deal. It turns out that she is coming to our campus this fall.

I have to admit — I am a little fascinated by her, not in an I-really-want-to-see-her-in-person kind of way, but fascinated by her, none the less – like a car wreck, or better yet, like watching a scorpion with 30 tiny scorpion babies on its back come out from under a rock in the backyard. I don’t think that scorpions are particularly evil, and I don’t think that I should be particularly deadly in my actions to them – all God’s creatures, and all that. But I watch from a distance. I wouldn’t seek to ruin their lives, but neither would I seek to attend a PD hosted by them.

Okay, so the scorpion analogy isn’t perfect, but by God, when I read about how “one of the few available jobs” in “high poverty areas” (Payne, 2015) is that of a drug dealer, I have to wonder if Payne is a scorpion with babies on her back, with words and phrases like, “but I am a nurturer! Can’t you see these babies on my back?? I just want to help the ‘Youths’ out of their poverty!”

One of my favorite thinkers counter to the deficit ideology of Payne in this area is Paul Gorski:

Gorski offers three ideologies when thinking about inequalities:

  • Deficit ideology (people in the worst places — academically, socio-economically, etc. — are there out of their own fault; it is about “fixing” the marginalized rather than fixing the structural conditions that contribute to marginalization);
  • Grit ideology (recognizes inequalities, but places the onus on students for climbing out of those inequalities — again, rather than fixing the structural inequalities themselves);
  • Structural ideology (addressing the systems in place that contribute to the underlying causes of inequality).

With that in mind, in Payne’s 2015 article on poor households and money, she makes the statement about dealing drugs and “one of the few available jobs” (she essentializes/stereotypes ALL poor neighborhoods); she places the problem squarely with the poor – and the solution with her (more on this in a moment); she states that “entrepreneurship, not management of money” should be our focus with youth.

This is how she laces her poison with sugar: she sets the problem within poor communities, and then sets herself up to be the savior. I never really understood the term “white savior” until now. And you know what else?

It’s not just her. I have done it – I do it too.

What a shitty thing to think. What a shitty way to behave. But that has, lately, started to change. Eu lieo Pedagogia do Oprimido.

“exposição-paulo-freire 02” by Um resgate coletivo da história is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 

Among other things, Freire discusses, at length, the humanity of Christ (Ferry, 1996) – the mission of social justice in the world – the Word Made Flesh – the Incarnation of God – this was God inciting social unrest for change in the world. This concept is, perhaps, at the heart of Freire’s conscientização – or more acutely, of liberation theology (I won’t go into how I believe that is twisted by conservative politics). As a staunchly liberal Christian, I believe that Freire’s conscientização – and the critical pedagogy and the theories that have developed along side of that are meant to offer counter-narratives to prevailing contemporary thinking, as were the narratives of Christ. In Matthew 25, Jesus gives a strong rebuke towards those who would be unwelcoming towards strangers. The Apostle Paul, who I think had a lot of issues with regards to misogyny, even said that the mark of a Christian is to share with “the Lord’s people in need.” And who are “the Lord’s people? That answer is in Matthew 25: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me…”

But the example of Christ moves beyond a one-on-one giving of oneself. It is a call to social action – a call to hear and listen – to, quite literally, walk two miles with the person who asks me to walk one mile with them. It is the idea that the poor have a privileged place in the Kingdom of God – and that we should seek to be like them because Jesus is one of them. In my last post,

I can’t separate politics and education; neither can I divorce politics and religion, because religion is political. Listen to Pope Francis speak about LGBTQ+ people: “Who am I to judge?” he says. Because I think that politics and religion and education are so intimately connected, maybe my place is not in a public institution. On the other hand, maybe this is how I can be a leader to those around me who subscribe to the soteriology of Payne.

If I consider how, as an elementary educator, I have learned to speak with children, that can also give me some insight into how to meet my students. And how do we meet children? How do we listen to them? We squat – we kneel. We look them in the eye. We give them some dignity. How do we meet anyone? We give them some goddamn dignity.

Deficit Ideology in Practice

I worked at a charter school during my first years as an educator: The Connect School.

Screenshot from ConnectSchool.org

How proud they were (are) about their successes in standardized testing. How proud they were (are) that they use a first come, first served policy of admission to the school. How proud they were (are) of being centrally located in Pueblo. How proud they were (are) of serving the poor in Pueblo, Colorado. How proud they were (are) of their successes in Science Olympiad and History Day. And how much do they do precisely what Milner (2013) warns against: they operate with no free and reduced lunch. They operate with no busses. They operate as a meritocracy, saying, “well, we are open to all, of course,” ignoring the fact that Pueblo is a city in which the majority of the population is LatinX, and the population of the school is 95% non-LatinX white. They ignore that children of doctors and businessmen and lawyers are the majority of the students. They ignore their commitment to the community because they ignore the systemic factors that limit a student’s ability to even attend the school.

And somewhere across town – in a neighborhood called the “Dogpatch,” in a school bearing the name of a woman who

took a walk around the neighborhood. She met her students. She met their families. She learned their stories. She found what they were missing in their lives. And then, she discovered community members who were willing to help her make a quality education accessible and important to these children and their parents (South, 2018);

a class of kindergarteners chants their phonemic awareness exercises, never allowed to move; never allowed to ask question: a product of the “Colorado Reading First” program.

We punish the poor with scripted programs under the guise of closing the achievement gap. We divide, according to affluence, in the very ways that Anyon (1980) describes. And that means that we divide by race as well.

I have read and watched and listened to educators speak about the connection between race and wealth, and I have fallen right into the trap that so many of my white friends fall into: one of “yeah, but, I have a net worth of something like negative $150,000.” I came from a very affluent family, and I was given nothing for college, but I had to care for my dad with my own money because his new wife stole his earnings from him. For years. Last year, I listened to one educator discuss black families who help their kids get to and through college – and they do so at income levels one-third that of white families.

I got afforded the opportunity to be well-educated because I was the “right” skin color. I have been poor for most of my adult life, but I was never poor and discriminated against. My God, I could go on and on.

Climbing Out of the Dumpster

My dad died last year of an awful disease: Multiple System Atrophy. This disease took his mobility and his quality of life and finally, his ability to speak, even. For a month, my partner, my sisters, and I sat by his bed and wished for him to die so that he could be out of pain. He didn’t want morphine. It messed with his stomach and it made him less-than-lucid. But one thing helped.

About a year before he died, my dad was in agonizing pain from a back injury that was due to a fall from a year prior to that. Nothing helped. Not being moved, not morphine, nothing. Until one day, a friend of mine asked me to meet her at her car, just off campus. She didn’t want me to be in trouble for the edibles she was giving me. Over that year, she probably baked many dozens of weed-infused cookies for my dad. A proud Native and Latina, she made sure that I got these edibles to my dad. When he couldn’t speak or swallow anymore, she made concentrates that we placed under his tongue in secret in his nursing home. He died on March 17, with so much weed in his system, he probably peed stems and seeds.

The last afternoon that I saw my dad, this wonderful woman gave me what would be his last dose. I cried and cried and cried with her. She gave me a prayer shawl that the ladies at her church had made. She held my hand as I spoke with the hospice folks on that last day. She helped me to see Christ in the face of what Payne might have called “a drug dealer with limited job options.”

I have a lot of bitterness towards a whole lot of things – wars and politicians and pain – but one thing I know to be true: that this woman was so much more that what Ruby Payne would have made of her. She told me something one time, years before my dad’s death – something that just created a switch in my thinking. It was one of the first weeks in my composition class, and she related a quote she had heard about poverty and privilege. This is one of the best examples of how this conversation can take place:

Millions of children will die, tonight, because they don’t have enough to eat, and you don’t give a fuck. But the worst part is that you are more bothered by the word ‘fuck’ than you are about the millions of children who will die tonight.

She taught me so much about how to view poverty and the poor and the sick and the dying: that I should treat them like Human Beings. “This,” she would tell me, “is the Gospel of Christ.” Pope Francis, himself a Latino Catholic in the Jesuit tradition, echoes this: “In the end,” he says, “we shall be judged on love alone.”

“Hate won,” Kirylo (2017) says, in reference to the 2016 presidential election, but we must “make every effort to ensure that love has the final word” (p. 597).

At least until my first of next week’s post, when love will certainly not be enough.


Anyon, J. (1980). Social class and the hidden curriculum of work. Journal of Education 162(1).

Ferry, C. (1996). When the distressed teach the oppressed: Toward an understanding of communion and commitment. JAEPL 2(Winter), 27-33. Retrieved from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/6fbc/197ac5fc699b46f5a41c140453caab895ed2.pdf

Gorski, P. (2015, October 1). Ideologies of Inequality: Toward a Structural View. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f8vYUBIDlmg

Kirylo, J. (2017). Hate won, but love will have the final word: Critical pedagogy, liberation theology, and the moral imperative of resistance. Policy Futures in Education 15(5), 590-601.

Milner, H. R. (2013). Analyzing poverty, learning, and teaching through a critical theory lens. Review of Research in Education 37, 1-53.

Payne, R. (2015). How do you teach kids from poor households about money? Retrieved from http://youthtoday.org.2015/02/how-do-you-teach-kids-from-poor-households-about-money/

South, S. (2018). Eva Baca inducted into Proby Cultural Heritage room. Retrieved at https://www.elpomar.org/blog/detail/eva-baca-inducted-into-proby-cultural-heritage-room/1914/

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