It's a child that most teachers know all too well: The little boy who is eligible for free or reduced-rate lunches but always has money for ice cream, or the little girl who has stylish new shoes but no paper or pencil for class.

That was one scenario of many that Ruby Payne, the founder of "aha! Process" and an expert on economic class and the hurdles of poverty, worked to deconstruct Friday during her keynote address at the annual Bright Futures Community Engagement Conference.

"It's a huge hurdle," she said. "This money thing is huge."

Payne delivered a lecture titled "A Framework for Understanding Poverty," which is also the title of her most notable book. She said researchers have identified four theories about why people become enmeshed in poverty: their choices and behaviors, their jobs, exploitation, or political and economic systems.

She said people who lean right politically tend to talk about the first two causes, while those who are left-leaning address the latter two. But that only causes a divide, she said.

"What happens in communities is that the community starts fighting, and they never come to solutions (about poverty)," she said. "And when we work with communities, what we say is this: Actually, they're all on the table. They all create the problem."

Payne said most communities have families that belong in one of three economic groups: poverty, middle class and wealthy.

In studying each of the groups, Payne said, she found that those who are in the middle class make their decisions about how to spend their time and money based on their work, achievements and material security. But the same decisions made by those in poverty are driven by survival, relationships and entertainment, she said.

She told the story of a school principal who once gave $200 to a family for new clothes for the children. The youngsters later returned to school wearing the same clothes, telling the principal that they had used the money to buy a DVD player instead.

"Poverty is painful," she said. "One of the ways you deal with the pain is entertainment."

Payne urged those in attendance to dig deeper into the poverty in their communities and unite to try to address it.

"Part of understanding how a community works together is understanding that different environments have different understandings of how the world works, and bringing them together is a key issue," she said.

Payne's address and the workshop that followed on Friday wrapped up the third annual Bright Futures conference, which was held at Missouri Southern State University. An estimated 300 people registered this year for the full conference, while approximately 800 people were expected to participate in some way over the course of the three days, according to C.J. Huff, a founder of the organization.

"I think one of the strengths of this country is our sense of community," he said. "When we think about the idea that school district and city boundary lines shouldn't matter and they're all our kids, how powerful would that be? This poverty is always going to be there. The question is, what supports are there to fix that and make sure these kids are being taken care of?"

Bright Futures awards

Several individuals and Bright Futures affiliates were recognized Thursday at the conference's inaugural awards banquet. Honorees were the Carl Junction School District, affiliate of the year; Carl Junction Superintendent Phil Cook, recipient of the Model the Way award; and Peggy Fuller, community co-champion.

Emily Younker is the assistant metro editor at the Joplin Globe. Contact: eyounker AT joplinglobe DOT com.