Payne's principal message is that poverty is not simply a monetary condition. She describes it to her audiences as a culture with particular rules, values, and knowledge transmitted from one generation to the next that inform people how to live their lives successfully — how to build and keep relationships, how to get one's needs met, how to entertain and be entertained, and more. Payne asserts that children growing up in a culture of poverty do not succeed because they have been taught the "hidden rules of poverty," but not the hidden rules of being middle class.
Likewise, Payne claims, public school teachers who are predominately from the middle class do not understand or relate to their students from poverty because they don't appreciate the hidden and essential rules for survival in poverty. Payne sees her educational mission as opening channels of communication, making explicit the hidden rules of class at all levels, and encouraging teachers to teach children of poverty the rules of middle class.
In A Framework for Understanding Poverty, Payne asks her readers, as she asks her audiences, to take her "Could you survive?" quizzes. Here are a few examples of what Payne considers the essential knowledge of the lower class:
I know how to get someone out of jail.
I know how to physically fight and defend myself physically.