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Education and Poverty: A Call to Action

This article was originally published in Edmonton Social Planning Council's Spring 2013 fACTivist.  (

Picture yourself as a 17-year-old living in inner-city Edmonton. Due to family instability, you find yourself sleeping on the streets, in a shelter, or maybe in the river valley, if the weather is nice enough. You find it difficult to negotiate street life as you have constant insecurity around food and having a safe place to go. Since you are homeless, you find public places to spend your time, such as the library, parks, and the mall. However, since you don't have many clothes, your appearance can be deemed "unsightly" and you are constantly harassed by security and police officers for loitering. Despite the challenges that you face on a day to day basis, you are a survivor of your environment and believe that getting an education is your key to improving your situation.

Unfortunately, as you start to attend school, you realize how difficult of a challenge this will be. You show up to class every morning on time but, since you do not have a safe place to go to at night, you have only slept a few hours and are extremely tired. On top of this, you have not eaten since the day before. The stress of sleeping in shelters and being alone and hungry has made it nearly impossible for you to concentrate on school. You keep falling asleep in class and this upsets your teacher. You are told that you are unmotivated to complete your school work and are becoming a "challenge" in the classroom. You are trying to improve your life and make a positive change, but with all your effort, it just seems that more and more barriers are being placed in your way. How can you break this cycle?

A picture like this illustrates reality for students who live in poverty, and how they negotiate the education system. Not all students who are in poverty live on the streets, but it is important to highlight the social conditions listed above to understand how they can impact a student's ability to learn. In Alberta, 73,000 children are living in poverty, with 34,000 of that number under the age of six (Briggs & Lee, 2012, p. 8). When you include the entire population, and depending on the statistical indicator used, the number of Albertans living in poverty is between 300,000-388,145 (Statistics Canada as cited in Briggs & Lee, 2012, p. 8). With these staggering numbers, it is often the popular sentiment to look at education as the great equalizer to lift people out of poverty. We must realize that, while we place much emphasis on the ability of education to reduce and eliminate poverty, we may overlook the effects that poverty has on a student's ability to receive an education.

According to a Statistics Canada study about educational performance differences between poor and affluent families, children from disadvantaged families were less ready to learn than those from affluent ones (as Cited in Canadian Teachers Federation, 2009, p. 2). Students from disadvantaged backgrounds who suffer poor living conditions, unstable family life, street violence, and other social insecurities are less prepared to excel when they come to school. On top of this, many students living in poverty often learn different behavioural norms than that of the middle or upper class. This can leave students from poverty feeling excluded from the more privileged groups, which can produce a feeling of alienation from educational institutions as they can be seen as places that reproduce the social norms of the dominant groups in society (Sharma, 2012, p. 80).

When the conditions of poverty impede a student's ability to learn, it can hamper their chances of completing high school. Without a high school education and the opportunity to attend post-secondary education, students will be at an even higher risk of remaining in poverty (Kolkman, Ahorro, & Moore-Kilgannon, 2012, p. 11). We must realize that many students in poverty do not see the value in attaining high school credits when they have more pressing issues to worry about, such as food and shelter. This creates a daunting challenge for teachers to demonstrate to students that the ticket to their long-term sustainable prosperity is through educational attainment.

It is imperative that teachers who work with disadvantaged students, and all students for that matter, build a sense of solidarity and equality with their students to create a new and meaningful experience at school. As Freire states (1970) "No pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors. The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption" (p.54). Teachers can accomplish this by engaging with democratic teaching techniques within the classroom, and by embracing their communities. George Wood's study on democratic education is a fine example of this, demonstrating what happens when teachers enable students to be a part of the decision-making process and provide input on issues of assessment, learning strategies, and classroom rules (Wood, 1990, p. 36). If we empower students who face societal oppression with a strong voice inside the classroom, allowing them to explore their barriers and feel in control of their learning, we can create a meaningful connection for those students to understand the viability of an education to improve their lives and community.

The struggle to end poverty must take place both inside and outside the classroom. It is crucial that the general public, and those in positions of power, understand the impact that poverty has on the educational attainment of many students. Educators and citizens must reframe how poverty is perceived within the dominant culture of Alberta. If we understand it as a moral injustice and a terrible outcome of our socio-economic system, that should compel us to act. For teachers, this means engaging with their work in a very political way to fight for justice on behalf of their students. Educational theorist Henry Giroux (1991) argues that this work is "morally courageous, as it does not require educators to step back from society in the manner of the 'objective' teacher, but to distance themselves instead from those power relations that subjugate, oppress, and diminish other human beings" ( p. 53). With this spirit, teachers can engage with community members to ensure that we no longer turn a blind eye to the social abandonment and political neglect that allows the suffering of those in poverty to take place. If this is accomplished, educators and citizens can create the just and equitable world that will eliminate barriers to student success in the classroom.


Briggs, A. & Lee, C.R. (2012). Poverty costs: An economic case for a preventative poverty reduction strategy in Alberta. Calgary, AB: Vibrant Communities Calgary and Action to End Poverty in Alberta.

Canadian Teachers Federation. (2009). Supporting education…building Canada: Child poverty and schools. Retrieved from

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc.

Giroux, H. (1991). Modernism, postmodernism, and feminism: Rethinking the boundaries of educational discourse [Introduction]. In H. Giroux (Ed.), Postmodernism, feminism, and cultural politics: Redrawing educational boundaries (pp. 1-59). Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Kolkman, J., Ahorro, J., & Moore-Kilgannon, B. (2012, November). Achieving the promise: Ending poverty in Alberta. Edmonton, AB. Retrieved from

Sharma, R. D. (2012). Poverty in Canada. Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press.

Wood, G. H. (1990). Teaching for democracy. Educational Leadership, 48(3), 32-37.


  1. A good blog, Dan. There's poverty in all developed nations which makes me feel keenly the imbalance in the world. We worked for 11 years in a developing nation, where the people were poverty stricken compared to the western world, but they had food growing naturally in abundance for their size of population. And, no one was homeless. They all shared. It was almost a level playing field, except when aid began to flow in and some people responsible for handling it appeared to grow wealthier. The social fabric of this wonderful country is slowly changing, and I wonder if it's for the better.

  2. Hey Heather!

    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment! Unfortunately, especially here in Alberta, the social fabric has been tearing apart for quite some time. Healthcare, education and the general social safety net has been torn away bit by bit by successive conservative governments dating back to the 1970's. It's time we get our priorities straight and make some change for our students!

    Thanks again for reading!

  3. Hi Dan,

    As a young teacher I am constantly asking questions to experienced to help form my own views on education. Let's face it, we are all influenced by others. I have 2 questions for you to begin:

    1. What is your concept of education?
    2. What is your concept of an educated person?

    Thanks and I look forward to your responses. I have many questions.


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