Literacy and Poverty

Research conducted by the National Anti-Poverty Organization (NAPO), 1992 suggests:

"It is poverty and other forms of inequality that create the barriers to good education for many Canadians." (p.1)

Its study entitled Literacy and Poverty: A View from the Inside links literacy and poverty as follows:

"Low-income earners and the long-term unemployed, Native people, seniors, prisoners, people with disabilities, racial and cultural minorities -- all have higher than average rates of both undereducation and poverty. They speak of the difficulties of growing up in poor, disadvantaged homes, of beginning life with few opportunities. They describe how their opportunities dwindled further in schools biased against children from poor families, against people receiving social assistance, against minorities. They pinpoint their main problems today as unemployment, lack of money and inadequate housing -- the same problems their families faced." (p.2)

"Literacy is usually only one of many problems for learners, with poverty, racism and other forms of systemic injustice being the greatest obstacles to a better life. [Literacy workers] saw literacy as a possible first step over these barriers, but added that these barriers themselves can block the way to literacy acquisition." (NAPO, 1992: p.13)

"Poor children face a high risk of growing up illiterate or of not receiving an adequate education. This is because family poverty can negatively affect every aspect of a child's physical, emotional and intellectual development. While some people manage to do quite will despite difficult circumstances, many are held back throughout their lives because of poverty experienced during formative years." (NAPO, p.21)

Barriers Related to Poverty
(Adapted from NAPO, 1992: p. 20,31)

Hunger: Poverty produces hunger, which interferes with education because it affects one's ability to concentrate on learning.

Inadequate Housing: A stable, comfortable home, with a quiet space for homework, is crucial to one's education. But low family income often means poor housing, including overcrowding, and perhaps unhealthy and unsafe conditions.

Disruptions in Family Life: Poverty can cause worry, tension, stress and instability which can make it difficult or impossible either to make time for or to concentrate on studying. For example:

"I was worried about whether I was going to get hit, about my mother getting hit, and I never cared about school. Well, it's not that I didn't care, I just couldn't learn so I just got frustrated and I didn't realize that it was the problems at home that were causing the school problem." (adult learner)

"Low-income families may move frequently in search of better or cheaper housing, or because of evictions. Frequent moves disrupt both school work and social relationships, which are the foundation of a child's successful school integration. The child who is reluctant to bring friends home feels cut off from others, and self-esteem suffers."

Systematic Inequality at School: Children from low income families are often steered into dead-end courses:

"Poor children, and children from minority groups, are often mistakenly labelled as having limited ability, primarily because teachers do not understand and value the skills and knowledge they do have."

"Children deemed less able or less mature are very often those who, because of their less advantaged family background and early experiences, arrive at school with less prior learning, a more limited vocabulary, and less advanced intellectual development. Grouping them with other similar children and expecting less of them quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is powerfully persuasive evidence, from a variety of research studies, that ability grouping seriously restricts the education of children in the lowest tracks..." (Radwanski, 1987: p.132)

Parents Feel Powerless: Poor, undereducated parents often lack the confidence to challenge the school system and schools are often unresponsive when parents do seek better treatment for their children.

"Lack of connection between schools and parents is a crucial factor in the educational disadvantage of poor children. Many...adults... feel alienated from and threatened by their children's schools."

Lack of money for special expenses such as eye glasses, hearing aids, the ?right' clothes, school photographs and activities, create functional disadvantages as well as visible inequality between poor children and their not- so-poor classmates.

Past Educational Experiences

Limited school opportunities because in the past, schools, particularly high schools, were either unavailable or inaccessible in rural areas due to lack of transportation. In some cases children did not want to leave home to attend the only schools available to them, and so did not attend.

Many low-income people drop out of school before reaching high school, because:

  • they have to support themselves or help support their families;
  • women, because of pregnancy;
  • if in special educational institutions, their program ends or they become too old, and they have nowhere else to go;
  • they are failing, feeling frustrated and humiliated, and don't see any point in continuing, so they give up.

According to Jereann King et al (1993: p.I-16/17) the major causes of low literacy cited by adult learners are:

  • They experienced conflict between working and going to school;
  • They received little or no encouragement and support from parents or the broader community to attend;
  • They didn't get all the attention and help they needed in school and/or at home;
  • School was difficult for them, they didn't learn as fast as others, they were labelled "learning disabled";
  • They had physiological problems such as poor eyesight or hearing, physical/mental disabilities;
  • They had emotional and/or psychological problems that affected their learning.

"In the 1950's when farming and agricultural work was the primary source of income ... school operated within the framework of the existing economy; they opened after the harvest and closed before the planting season. Even when schools were open, many children's attention had to be focused on farm activities; they went to school when weather didn't allow for any farm work. In many cases, older children took care of younger siblings while parents or grandparents worked on the farm or elsewhere." (King et al, 1993: p. I-16)

Sometimes parents felt that if children became educated they would think they were too good for farming. And often, rural farming communities were simply not able to afford high quality schools.

More recent high school dropouts may be dealing with unsupportive educational environments, peer pressure, drug and substance abuse, a dysfunctional family or community situations.

Gordon Nore et al (1991: P.14) also suggest that adults may have low literacy levels because:

  • They didn't like school or felt out of place;
  • They were unable to finish school due to personal circumstances;
  • They did not get the same chances in school as others.

Barriers to returning to or staying in school as adults

The National Anti-Poverty Organization (1992: p.59-67) identifies four major barriers to returning to or staying in school as adults:

1. Financial problems and bureaucratic roadblocks

No money means people can't afford the fees, supplies, child care, bus fare, etc.

Many people don't know there are learning opportunities available, or how to find them.

Many of the people most in need of literacy programs never find out about them, because programs don't have money for outreach, and social agencies rarely know about the range of literacy programs available for their undereducated clients.

Recipients of social assistance or other government programs often have no choice in the programs they can attend. They may receive lower benefits if they do not attend, but community based adult education programs are often not ?approved' by those programs.

Under social assistance or Unemployment Insurance programs, ?employable' persons are usually expected to be looking for and available for work, or attending ?approved' job training courses, which usually do not include literacy programs.

"...Lives filled with struggles that stemmed directly or indirectly from poverty. Poor people, whether employed or unemployed, are often stretched beyond their limits simply trying to get by, and cannot contemplate the additional challenge of upgrading their education." (NAPO, 1992: 60)

Inflexible program schedules often cause difficulties for parents or other working people; learners may need full time study to qualify for a study allowance, but only part time tutoring is available.

2. Lack of good, affordable child care

Women are most often responsible for children and can only come to programs if they have child care. "Child care must be safe, easy to get to, and close to the program. The cost of child care can prevent many women from getting an education." (Atkinson, et al, 1994: p. 79)

3. Transportation difficulties

Many people, particularly women, cannot afford the bus fare to get to a literacy program. Where there is no public transportation, they may have no way to get to a program.

4. Inappropriate programs

Programs often are too advanced for adults just beginning to read and write.

The duration of many programs are not realistic for adults to meet their literacy needs, but they cannot return to the program, and must leave when a certain period of time has elapsed.

"Programs for Native learners may not provide Native tutors or appropriate learning materials." (NAPO, 1992: p. 67)

Few first language literacy programs are available in other than English or French, despite the knowledge that "people have little chance of becoming literate in a second language if they do not acquire these skills in their first language." (NAPO, 1992: p. 67)

Programs are often inconvenient or inaccessible (ie. times, location, wheelchair access, childcare, etc.)

Other barriers which prevent people from returning to school as adults are:

1. Personal Feelings

Low self-confidence
Fear, feelings of shame, and low self-esteem
Isolation, feelings that one is alone with their limited literacy skills
Negative attitude toward school
Giving a low priority to personal goals

"[Adult learners] may require a lot of individualized attention to restore self-confidence before attending classes." (Colvin and Root, 1987: p.5)

2. Social disapproval

Family/peer/community pressure or lack of acceptance

" Family Dynamics. Men sometimes discourage female partners from improving their education because they perceive it as a threat to family stability or their own status in the family." (NAPO, 1992: p.65)

"It is difficult to find volunteer tutors to work in prisons or to work with mentally handicapped learners." (NAPO, 1992: p.67)

3. Limiting personal situations

Cannot attend classes regularly or at all due to home/work responsibilities

4. Privacy

Women who bring children with them need time on their own to learn. They must have access to private space for learning. This may mean a separate space for women to meet.

"Women who have survived abuse need to talk about their experiences before they can concentrate and learn." (Atkinson, 1994: p. 81)

The majority of sexual abuse survivors are women, and may need to meet privately with other women survivors in order to feel safe. (Atkinson, 1994)

5. Violence

"Violence, and the threat of violence, keeps many women from getting an education, it affects their concentration and ability to learn, and their attendance." (Atkinson, 1994: p.79)

6. Isolation

Isolation can keep people from coming to literacy programs. People need to be listened to when they say they need to talk. Women's needs can be very different than the needs of men. They may need to meet in small women-only groups to talk about their lives and the changes they are going through. (Atkinson, 1994)

7. Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment can happen anywhere, including literacy programs.

" When a woman is sexually harassed, she feels uncomfortable and may not know what to do. She may not feel safe in the program. This is not acceptable. Women have a right to safety at school. Women need to know that they will be taken seriously if they complain about sexual harassment. Men need to know that if they harass women they could be expelled. People will know what to expect if programs have a policy about sexual harassment. The policy should be very clear. Everybody must be told about it." (Atkinson, 1994: p. 81)

8. Discrimination

"Discrimination keeps people from learning. Native [people], [people] of colour, [people] with disabilities, [gays] and lesbians live with discrimination every day. Programs must make sure that everyone is treated with respect. They must take action when discrimination happens between people in the program.

People will know that they are welcome if programs have a policy against discrimination. The policy must be written in clear language and should be posted around the program. All new students, volunteers, and staff should be told about the policy." (Atkinson, 1994: p. 81)

People will also feel welcome if they see things which tell them they are welcome, such as other people like themselves, full wheelchair accessibility, posters representing a diversity of people in learning and everyday activities, materials promoting respect and understanding of diverse peoples and cultures. (Atkinson, 1994)

Unequal Treatment of "Minorities":
(NAPO, 1994: p. 20-31)

"From the 1890's to the late 1960's, Native children were mainly educated in a system of residential schools. They were taken from their families at an early age and placed in institutional settings where their language and culture were systematically suppressed...

...Residential schools are gone now, but the legacy lives on among many Native people in the form of self-hatred, substance abuse and child abuse. The damage cannot be overstated. People lost their pride, their hope, the chance to learn from the Elders. An entire generation of adults experienced the pain of losing their children to residential schools. Those who grew up in the schools often have frightful memories which may prevent them from getting involved today in their own children's schooling.

Native children... still do not have equal educational advantages. Those who attend public schools [today] often encounter prejudice from teachers and other children."

People of visible ethnic minorities or learning English as a second language (ESL) are often treated differently, segregated from the "regular" students, and taught down to, as if they were less intelligent, rather than simply learning from a different language base. Even second- or third-generation members of visible minorities are sometimes assumed to be less able to function in a regular classroom on the basis of their ethnicity!

"[People] with physical disabilities as children were placed in special schools or classes which often had lower academic standards. For instance,... graduates of Ontario provincial schools for the deaf or special high schools had received in the past an education equivalent on average to a regular Grade 5. Even people with special ability who are deaf are being held back." (NAPO, 1992: p. 30)

Likewise, children labelled as "learning disabled" may still be treated differently, and placed in separate classrooms where academic expectations are lower than in mainstream classrooms. As a result, they do not receive the encouragement required in order to learn to their full potential.

Note on Labelling

"Labelling people according to their differences can create the impression that there is something ?wrong' with them. Often our intentions are good, but the results can damage the quality of learning." (Nore, et al 1991: 25) Some labels encountered in literacy might be: illiterate, learning disabled, dyslexic, slow, unmotivated, handicapped, lazy, those people, them and us, etc.

Not all of these terms are necessarily negative all the time. But there are dangers in talking about people in this way, for the person being labelled and for the person doing the labelling. Many adults are 'functionally illiterate' as a result of being labelled in their childhood.

To bring this closer to home, "...think of a weakness of your own - a skill you wish you had, or an area in which you feel uninformed. Imagine what your world would be like if that was the only way people saw you, if job opportunities, friendships, your status in the community were determined by this skill you lack. Imagine if no one recognized the other talents you possess. What would your world be like?" (Nore, et al, 1991: p.25).

Chapter Four References

Atkinson, Tannis, Frances Ennis and Betty-Ann Lloyd. Listen to Women in Literacy: The power of woman-positive literacy work. Canadian Congress for Learning Opportunities for Women (CCLOW). Fernwood Publishing. Toronto. 1994.

Colvin, Ruth J. and Jane H. Root. TUTOR: Techniques Used in the Teaching of Reading. Sixth Edition. Literacy Volunteers of America, Inc. Syracuse, NY. 1987.

King, Jereann, et al. It brought a richness to me: a resource manual for participatory literacy practitioners. Literacy South. Durham, N.C. 1993.

National Anti-Poverty Organization (NAPO). Literacy and Poverty: A View From the Inside. Research Report. Ottawa. 1992.

Nore, Gordon W.E., Sarah Thompson and Brent Poulton. Learning in the Workplace: Tutor Resource Guide. Learning in the Workplace, Frontier College. Toronto. 1991.

Radwanski, George. Ontario Study of the Relevance of Education and the Issue of Dropouts. Ontario Ministry of Education. Toronto. 1987.

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