The Culture of Generational Poverty > Chapter 7 - Common Sense isn't all that Common

Chapter 7: Common Sense isn’t all that Common

Common Sense isn’t all that Common

“Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.”   Albert Einstein

The middle class has various reactions to issues of poverty. Emotional responses range from pity to anger, fear to intolerance, disgust to embarrassment. Although some hold well ingrained stereotypes through which they regard the poor harshly, the majority of Americans respond differently to the poor based on their perceptions of what caused the poverty.

Homeless elderly or children might incur sympathy from mainstream America, while an apparently healthy adult living on the streets is likely to be scorned. Someone who loses everything they ever owned due to excessive medical bills gains the empathy of the middle class. Someone who returns from prison and can’t find a job due to their criminal record, not so much. Women who work in the sex trade to support their children are not viewed with nearly so much charity as those who recycle cans found on the roadside to feed their kids. The middle class tends to judge the poor through their own paradigms of worthiness.

The poor are referred to as “the great unwashed,” deadbeats, do-nothings, lazy, lacking in pride, and “trash” by those who lack tolerance for them. Seldom, however, does the average citizen make a concerted effort to intervene and help the poor live by the conventions that will make them more acceptable to the middle class.

The Burden of Educating the Poor Rests on You

Even those who work in healthcare and social services often refrain from offering suggestions to people they encounter whose cultural norms, appearance, or behavior is outside mainstream norms. Often those in the middle class feel more comfortable talking about these folks than to them. The old adage that states “if they knew better they would do better,” sometimes alludes those in the helping professions as their discomfort prevents them from addressing obvious barriers that will certainly keep the poor from transcending class.

The word “class” itself is a term that is slow to roll off middle class lips. In this conspiracy of silence, the middle class rationalizes their hesitancy by explaining that they don’t want to make anyone feel self-conscious by pointing out the obvious. Even when middle class helpers attempt to address these factors, they sometimes show their discomfort through their hesitancy, and clumsily try to make their comments without directly addressing the issue at hand. “Do you live near a dry cleaner?” is muttered instead of “You need to have that coat cleaned because it carries an odor.” A single mother with six children might hear the comment, “My, you have a big family!” as opposed to “Let’s talk about ways to prevent future pregnancies since you currently appear to be struggling to keep up with the demands of a large family.”

Keeping in mind the tenets of poverty culture, here are some tips on communicating effectively with the poor.
  • Use inquiry mode to begin the conversation and ask how the person views their current situation.
  • Provide firm, kind direction by speaking plainly, yet in a non-abrasive manner.
  • Avoid the words “should, ought to, got to and must.” The words “want to” or “need to” will be suitable substitutes for the other phrases that are more likely to induce guilt and resistance.
  • When you encounter resistance, do not be deterred by it. State “I know this is difficult to discuss, but we need to talk about these issues before we can resolve them.”
  • Avoid sending mixed messages by smiling while discussing serious issues. Appear concerned if that is how you feel.
  • Do not allow the person you are speaking with to manipulate you or change the subject. Redirect the conversation back to the topic at hand if the discussion gets off track.
  • Display empathy and allow your support for the person to be apparent. Make support sounds such as “Ouch, Aaaah, Oh no,” when the person reveals a sad circumstance.

[QN.No.#21. When teaching a generationally impoverished person the hidden rules of the middle class, one needs to ...]

On the following page you will notice a model entitled The Pallet of Inquiry and Advocacy. This model is a companion piece to The Ladder of Inference shown on page 25 of this course. It is also taken from The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. The purpose of this model is to help a person make their Ladder of Inference obvious to the interviewer, thereby giving the interviewer insight into how the person thinks and behaves. There are both functional and dysfunctional methods listed on the model in each of the 4 quadrants. The dysfunctional methods are italicized to differentiate them from the more effective methods listed.

Clarification as to how to use the model appears immediately after the model itself.

Skillful Discussion


Pallet of Inquiry and Advocacy

The Pallet of Inquiry and Advocacy can begin in any quadrant of the model, but for purposes of interviewing the impoverished, it is generally best to begin with “observing” techniques and work around the model counter clockwise.

Observing--Don't just do something, stand there! Study the person.
  • Sensing--Watching the person without comment long enough to get a feel for their emotional state.
  • Bystanding--Making comments that pertain to the person's demeanor or affect, not his/her verbalizations. "You seem upset. Long day, huh?"
  • Withdrawing-- (Dysfunctional) not really seeing the person at all.
Asking--Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
  • Interviewing--Exploring the person's point of view and the reasons behind it. "What causes you to say that?" "How is that important to your current situation?"
  • Clarifying--Refocusing on the questions to be answered and gaining increased understanding of the person's answer. "So what you are actually saying is…" "Am I correct in understanding that…"
  • Interrogating-- (Dysfunctional) "Why can't you see your point of view is wrong?" (Avoid this strategy!)
Generating--Finding solutions by combining the person's ideas with the interviewer's ideas.
  • Dialogue--Suspending all assumptions to create a "container" in which collective thinking can emerge. "From what you tell me, I assume that…" "Let's think about this for a moment…"
  • Skillful Discussion--Balancing advocacy and inquiry by being genuinely curious, asking the person about his/her assumptions without being critical or accusing, and making one's own reasoning explicit. "Tell me what you think of this idea." "Do you think this will work?"
  • Politicking-- (Dysfunctional) Giving the impression of balancing advocacy and inquiry while being closed minded. "You are probably right but we still need to do it this way." (Avoid this strategy!)
Telling--Concluding the discussion by summarizing and deciding what actions to take.
  • Testing--Issuing a trial close. "Here's what I say. So what do you think of it?" "Which of these three options do you think will work best?"
  • Asserting--Stating your ideas and explaining your reasoning explicitly. "Here's what I say, and here's why I say it." "I have come to these conclusions and I want to make this recommendation based on them."
  • Explaining--Stating your impressions and your rationale for your assumptions. "Here's how I see it working and here's why I see it this way." "It's been my experience that…"
  • Dictating-- (Dysfunctional) Imposing your view or solution on the person without regard for their thoughts or feelings. "Here's what I say, and never mind why I say it." "This is what you are going to do." (Avoid this strategy!)
When using inquiry mode to ask the person about themselves, there are five questions that can assist the person to develop skills needed for success in the middle class while gathering information that promotes an understanding of the person. These questions have been known to get “magical” results when attempting to make plans with the generationally impoverished, and thus, their title.[i] The questions listed teach risk analysis and allows a person to think through his/her situation in a systematic manner. It is beneficial to write down the answers for consideration by both the interviewer and the impoverished person.

[QN.No.#20. Which statement is false?? The Pallet of Inquiry and Advocacy advises that when interviewing people in need, one need to refrain from...]

Five Magic Questions

1. Given the situation that you are in, what do you want to see as a result?

2. Can you tell me three options that you have for getting the result you want?




3. What are the risks involved (what might go wrong) in each of your options?




4. Which set of risks are you best able to control and how will you control them?

5. What is your plan?

Activities     Timeline     Person Responsible





To surface the plan, it helps to ask the person, “What are you going to do?” “When are you going to do it?” Who will be responsible to see it gets done?” “What are you going to do next?” Provide the person a written copy of their plan when it has been composed. Before ending the interview or conversation ask, “What rewards will come to you if you follow this plan?” This question focuses the person on the benefits of following through with the plan.

Teaching the Hidden Rules of the Middle Class

Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of communicating across class lines involves being able to teach the hidden rules of the middle class without offending the person who requires the instruction. It is best to begin by explaining that in order to achieve and sustain any level of economic success in America; a person is expected to conform to certain norms in the mainstream culture. Be certain to mention that this requires everyone who works, socializes, or lives among the middle class to behave differently in public than they might in private.

Again, using inquiry mode will help establish the needed rapport and understanding needed to discuss these sensitive issues. Here are some questions that will help to introduce the hidden rule that needs to be discussed. These questions directly correspond to the hidden rules mentioned on pages 29 and 30 of this course. After each set of queries the interviewer will offer information as to what those who were raised in the middle class learned to think, act, or respond in each area.
  • Have you ever attempted to budget your money? How did that work for you? How did you go about it? Would you be willing to try it again? If you were able to save just 10% of your income, how much would you have accumulated by the end of one year? Where will you keep your savings so it will be safe? What are some of the things that you would like to save for?
  • Have you ever heard about something called “company manners?” What does this term mean to you? How were you taught to address people you meet who are older than you or in a position of authority? When you think about acting “politely” what sort of behaviors does that bring to mind? How do you protect others from embarrassing bodily functions such as burps, gas, coughs, or sneezes that you might feel coming on? Is it okay to swear in front of people you don’t know well, or who don’t swear themselves?
  • Were “table manners” considered to be important when you were a child? What did it mean in your house to have table manners? When you try to teach your children table manners, what kinds of things do you ask them to do, or not do?
  • Is personal privacy important to you? What kinds of things might you wish to keep private? Do you ever feel embarrassed or uncomfortable when others tell you personal things about themselves? What kinds of things do you feel are no one else’s business? Is it okay to openly discuss such issues as sex, bodily functions, finances, prices, or family problems? How well must you know someone before you would consider bringing up such topics? What kinds of things do you consider rude, lewd, or crude? Have you ever seen anyone make a public seen by getting loud or angry in public? If so, how did it make you feel?
  • When you see someone who is significantly different than you, how do you react? What kinds of people make you want to stare at them? What sort of people make you want to look away?
  • What is the first thing you do after you get paid to assure that you spend your money wisely? Everyone deserves a little fun, so how do you assure that you get at least a small treat for yourself out of what you earn? Do you know what a credit rating is? Did you realize that it affects your credit rating negatively if you don’t pay your bills on time? What would be the advantages to you to have a good credit rating?
  • Where do you cash your checks? Have you considered opening a checking account? Is anything preventing you from doing so? How will you begin clearing up your past debt or outstanding warrants so that your money will be safe in a bank?
  • Do you have access to low cost or no cost laundry facilities? How often do you think you should wear an outfit before laundering it? Do you have enough underwear to put on a fresh pair every day between trips to the laundry? Do you generally put on clean clothes after a shower? What sort of toiletries do you use to keep yourself smelling and feeling fresh? Would you like to know how I go about making sure I don’t carry an offensive odor or looking disheveled?
  • Do you rent furniture, appliances, or electronics for your home? Are you aware that rental fees cause you to pay much more than any of the rented items are worth? Do you know how to purchase reliable used appliances, electronics, or furniture? What might you look for before purchasing a used item such as a television, a refrigerator, or a car?
  • How do you prevent waste in your household? How do you make use of leftover food? What measures do you take to try to keep your utility bills low? What kinds of things do the people you know best waste? How do save or protect these things in your home?
  • Have you ever heard the term “personal boundaries?” What does the term mean to you? How do you attempt to keep appropriate boundaries between yourself and others? If someone invades your boundaries how do you generally react? If someone physically invades your space how do you respond to them?
  • Have you ever helped yourself to something at work, or in public because no one else seemed to want it? Is it okay to take things before someone else offers them to you? If you see something you want that hasn’t been offered to you, what do you do?
  • When you entertain your friends for a yard party, do you use your front yard or your backyard? How do you assure that your neighbors are not bothered by your entertaining? Do you impose rules on your party guests? If so, what are your rules? Do you impose rules on your own conduct when you attend a party thrown by someone else?

This list doesn’t represent all of the hidden rules of the middle class, but it does give some suggestions as to how to open delicate conversations with the impoverished when you notice someone is violating the hidden rules of the middle class.

Capitalizing on Poverty Culture Norms

One means of crowding out bad habits and unwanted behaviors is to extend desirable behaviors. Some of the strengths that exist in poverty culture can be used to fuel transition from one class to the next. The suggestions listed below correspond with the tenets and norms of generational poverty listed on pages 32-34 of this course.

[QN.No.#22. Which statement is false? Capitalizing on the strengths present in poverty culture can...]
  • People who live in noisy environments generally develop the ability to speak loudly and project their voice well. This is an asset in certain occupational environments. Factory work, arcade jobs, amusement parks, sports stadiums, and pet shelters are examples of environments where these folks might do well, and will excel over others in screening out background noise to concentrate on the job.
  • People who know how to be humorous, or tell great jokes or stories might do well in environments where tension needs to be dispelled such as customer service jobs, or telemarketing. They are also welcome in places where people go to have fun, such as clubs, restaurants, or entertainment venues. People who like to entertain, or be entertained usually enjoy jobs where they know some of the existing workers, or are able to make contact with their friends while working.
  • Parents, particularly mothers, who do not want to leave their children with daycare providers, can find jobs as Head Start teaching assistants, school bus drivers, school lunchroom staff, school janitorial staff, or as daycare providers themselves. This allows them to be near their own children while they work.
  • People who live in the present and have a strong focus on daily survival can benefit from suggestions to take immediate action. “What are three things you could do today to improve the situation at hand?” is a good question to ask that will move these folks into action. This prospective can be extended by asking, “What will you do tomorrow to keep the ball rolling? How about next week, next month, next year?”
  • Women who define themselves with the roles of rescuer or martyr will want to hear how what you are asking them to do will help them better care for others, or gain the admiration of others. Challenge women who see themselves as martyrs by telling them that what you expect of them will be difficult, but that you are certain a strong person such as themselves will be able to accomplish it.
  • Men who see themselves in the lover/fighter roles will enjoy jobs that involve demonstrating some machismo. Life guarding, security work, being a bouncer in a local club, policing jobs, enforcement jobs, the military, dangerous jobs, and heavy physical labor might suit such men well.
  • People who are “high touch” and excel in communicating nonverbally might be well suited for jobs in crowded places such as subways, airplanes, bus stations, malls, and entertainment venues where one must “press some flesh” in order to do their job.
  • Those who believe in fate will be pleased to hear that it is indeed their fate to be successful. Statements such as “I see great things in your future!” or “This was really meant to be!” will be readily believed by those who are looking for a little magic in their life. Use phrases such as “this is no coincidence…,” “we finally discovered each other…,” “destiny has intervened…” to trigger heightened levels of cooperation or decrease resistance, or to inspire compliance.
  • People who like to dress in a revealing manner might feel comfortable in a job as a dancer, a singer, a bartender, a Hooter’s waitress, a casino, or an employee in an adult establishment. Do keep in mind that someone enjoys these jobs, and your values need not enter into another’s employment decisions.
The tenets of poverty culture that cannot be seen as strengths in moving towards self-sufficiency, or middle class level economic success, need to be addressed. Here are some ideas as to how to focus these discussions.

  • Polarized thinking that interferes with effective problem solving is not a strength in poverty culture, but something that must be overcome to gain and sustain success in mainstream culture. When an impoverished person says, “I can’t,” or “I quit” there are a couple of good questions to ask to help the person build persistence. “What can you do then, if you can’t do this?” will help a person find his/her top and bottom limits. “If you quit doing what you are doing, what else will you be quitting at the same time?” This question assists in linking the consequences of quitting with the act of quitting. If you quit your job, you are also quitting at buying groceries, paying the rent, keeping the lights on, and putting gas in the car.
  • An oral language tradition of using slang is not a strength in many employment and social situations, particularly if the slang includes profanities, or words that are not understood by mainstream culture. To help a person evolve from casual register to the more formal mainstream chatter, paraphrase what the person has stated to you using simple English. Then ask the person how the statement sounded different when you said it, and suggest that they parrot your phrasing the next time they repeat the statement in the presence of middle class listeners. Explain that people in the mainstream often judge a person’s intelligence by the way they speak, and you are eager to see them make a good impression and represent their intellect well. To capitalize on the use of casual register, social service organizations can rename their programs to have greater appeal to poverty culture. “Parenting Class” can be re-titled “Surviving Your Kids” to gain more buy-in from those they hope to attract to the seminars.
  • Discipline is seen as punishment and penance, not the impetus for change, so be specific as to the changes you wish to see as a result of any disciplinary measure you may be required to take against an impoverished person. Spell out exactly what behaviors a person must exhibit, or refrain from exhibiting, to avoid experiencing the same, or worse, consequences in the future. Attempt to engage the person in a round of impromptu planning to explore the available change options.
  • People who live in poverty operate more on “compass time” than “clock time.” They tend to do things when they feel moved to do so, as opposed to being obedient to a clock, like folks who live in the middle class. Although cultures who follow compass time (the Caribbean Islands, Hawaii, and Central and South American countries for example) exhibit significantly less stress than does mainstream U.S. culture, this practice becomes problematic if one is employed in the mainstream. Being timely and being dependable are practically synonymous in the middle class, and that interpretation must be carefully explained to those who are newcomers to the class. Using time landmarks (for example, when a certain TV show ends, or meal times, or sleep schedules) to mark time and associate compass time norms with clock time measures will assist people who live on compass time to arrive on schedule, and learn to measure time in a new way.
  • A lack of order and organizational skills can be a real deficit in navigating mainstream demands. To teach these skills to impoverished people you must first assure that they have the needed organizational tools and that they know how to use them. An appointment book or calendar, a partitioned accordion file, large manila envelopes in a file box, a refrigerator magnet with a clamp affixed to it to hang an envelope full of receipts, any of these tools will help those without tools to get organized. After the required equipment is provided, a class or tutorial should be given to help learners become proficient at color coding, dating, or alphabetizing the contents of the organizational tools for ease of information retrieval.
  • Little goal setting is apparent in poverty culture, and people tend to live in the moment. Helping the poor learn to use Stephen Covey’s SMART goals[ii] criteria will help give them a glimpse into future possibilities. Start with relatively short term goals—one week, one month, one year, to build on the cumulative impact of short-term successes. Covey’s goal criteria appear below.

[QN.No.#23. Things that generationally impoverished people may need to change to be successful in mainstream culture include...]

SMART Goals are…


Legitimizing Transferable Skills

Despite the many jobs programs that are designed to equip the impoverished with marketable job skills, there are few programs that attempt to capitalize on existing skills that a person might possess and use frequently to pay the bills. A “shade tree” mechanic or a “kitchen barber” can be enrolled in an auto repair certification program or barber school to obtain a legitimate license to cut hair. Once the skill is legitimized, the person who is now certified or licensed might wish to enroll in an entrepreneurial program to learn how to run his/her own business in a legal, and socially recognized manner.

It is often difficult to get social service clients to reveal their informal sources of income, so many times the helper who is empowered to make decisions about what occupational skills program to channel job seekers towards are unaware of the skills that a person might already possess. Even aptitude and interest testing may not be sufficient to identify a skill set that one is seeking to keep hidden. Here is a non-threatening tool that can be administered to reveal skill sets that are foundational to successful occupational skills training, or to a successful job search.

[QN.No.#24. Which statement is false? Transferable Skills are sets of skills that can...]

Transferable Skills

Check all statements that apply to your own experience. Do not check a statement unless you have done the activity at least three times.

Have you ever…

  • Cleaned a house
  • Mowed and trimmed a lawn
  • Cared for a pet
  • Cared for children
  • Fixed a mechanical problem with a car
  • Done body work on a car
  • Repaired an appliance or electronic equipment
  • Washed windows
  • Cooked a meal
  • Used a sewing machine
  • Operated a cash register
  • Balanced a check book
  • Operated a video camera
  • Mastered making an art object or a craft item
  • Washed or styled someone's hair
  • Learned to type
  • Used a computer
  • Cut firewood
  • Sold retail products in person or over the phone
  • Stocked shelves or taken an inventory
  • Cared for an elderly person
  • Obtained a chauffeur's license
  • Operated a switchboard
  • Served food, bused tables or washed dishes
  • Done factory work
  • Grown plants, flowers, vegetables or done other gardening work
  • Painted or wall-papered a room
  • Installed floor covering
  • Done office work such as filing, making copies or taking messages
  • Operated farm equipment or worked on a farm
  • Performed as a musician, singer, dancer or model
  • Been a sports fan
  • Tended bar
  • Had an interest in music or musicians
  • Had an interest in fashion
  • Had a hobby or a collection
Circle the five skills that you feel you are best at doing. Then put a star next to three skills out of the five you selected to indicate which skills you most enjoy performing. Finally, choose between the top three items to decide which set of skills you might like most to perform on a future job.

Once the person has selected a skill area to pursue, an assessment will occur to determine if the field chosen has viable employment opportunities and if the chosen profession requires formal schooling, certification, or licensure. The person is then either enrolled in the appropriate training course, or begins a directed job search. The components of such a search appear below.

Matching Skills Profile to Employment Opportunities

Once employers or jobs are targeted how do you direct the search?
  • Update the person’s resume to reflect the transferable skills possessed by him/her
  • Organize perspective employers geographically to save time and transportation costs.
  • An earnest job search is conducted 3 hours/day, 6 days/week. Chunk the list down into 3-hour increments.
  • Give the person a sheet to track each job contact and note the result of each.
  • Review the tracking sheet with the client on a weekly basis to plan the following week's search. Prioritize return visits to promising employers and add new leads.
  • Move the search to a new occupational or geographical area once all efforts in a targeted field or area have been exhausted.
What concerns do we need to discuss with job seekers at the weekly debriefing meeting during the job search?
  • Ask which employer contacts were most promising and why they appear so.
  • Suggest appropriate follow-up activities (re-contact, thank you note).
  • Conduct a mock interview to practice for specific upcoming employer interviews and give feedback regarding verbal responses, body language, eye contact, posture, affect, and social skills.
  • Plan the grooming efforts and attire for upcoming interviews.
  • Discuss methods to assure a timely arrival for upcoming interviews (travel time, when to leave, time to set the alarm clock, daycare arrangements).
  • Review the least promising employer contacts of the past week and surface learning points to be derived from those experiences.
  • Provide the client with a written copy of the points covered during debriefing.
[i] Rizzo, Rita (2000) Purposeful Interviewing for Jobs and Family Services Professionals. State of Ohio Publishing, Columbus, OH

[ii] Covey, Stephen (1997) Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Vol. 3, Franklin Covey Press


Question No.20. Which statement is false?? The Pallet of Inquiry and Advocacy advises that when interviewing people in need, one need to refrain from...

a. Interrogating the person who is being interviewed.
b. Explaining the rules and protocols that govern the assistance that they need.
c. Withdrawing and mentally checking out to avoid caring too much about the person or their situation.
d. Politicking and discounting what the person in need has to say.

Question No.21. When teaching a generationally impoverished person the hidden rules of the middle class, one needs to ...

a. Use inquiry mode to open the conversation.
b. Provide firm, kind direction.
c. Explain that a person is expected to conform to certain norms in the mainstream culture.
d. All of the above.

Question No.22. Which statement is false? Capitalizing on the strengths present in poverty culture can...

a. Help people find jobs that they enjoy and are well suited to perform.
b. Reinforce bad habits that are better eradicated.
c. Help motivate positive responses to incremental changes.
d. Allow people to use skills developed in poverty to successfully navigate the transition to middle class.

Question No.23. Things that generationally impoverished people may need to change to be successful in mainstream culture include...

a. Becoming better organized.
b. Seeing discipline and/or punishment as an impetus for changing their behavior.
c. Learning to be on time and conforming to "clock time" that is the time measurement adhered to in the middle class.
d. All of the above.

Question No.24. Which statement is false? Transferable Skills are sets of skills that can...

a. Be identified and used to help a person find and keep a job.
b. Are skills that can be transferred from one environment or occupation to another.
c. Skills that involve transferring merchandise from one truck to another.
d. Used to help a person find a job that they have both an aptitude for and an interst in.

The Culture of Generational Poverty > Chapter 7 - Common Sense isn't all that Common
Page Last Modified On: April 28, 2015, 08:49 PM