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The link between literacy and poverty: Can education help to eliminate poverty?

There’s no denying the direct link between poverty and literacy. This 2022 report found that roughly one in five school-aged children worldwide (about 262 million) are not in school, with children from the poorest households almost five times as likely to be out of school than those from families with a higher income.

Although statistics are limited for Canada, we know that almost half of adult Canadians struggle with literacy. For individuals at the lowest skill level, 29 per cent are from low-income households. In comparison, the median household income for individuals with the highest literacy proficiencies was 70 per cent more than those on the other end of the literacy spectrum.

Poverty is strongly linked to limited academic opportunities and a reduced ability to develop skills for lifelong learning. This, in turn, creates barriers to employment and earning potential later in life.

Individuals with low literacy skills are more likely to drop out of school and struggle to find and maintain employment, leading to economic insecurity and poverty. The jobs that are available to those with low literacy levels tend to often be low-wage, and these workers are also likely to stay unemployed for longer periods of time. According to the 2012 Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), approximately 37 per cent of Canadian adults with low literacy skills are unemployed, compared to 11 per cent of those with higher literacy skills.

The bottom line? For the greatest chance of success, poverty reduction strategies must include literacy programming.

Barriers to accessing literacy programs

As a fundamental human right, everyone should be able to receive an education.

Canada has numerous free literacy programs, but accessing them is challenging for many. From researching free literacy programs to arranging transportation and childcare to attend classes, registering for and attending literacy programs can be a hurdle.

And if someone makes it to a literacy program, they may not be in the right frame of mind to learn. Poverty can hinder a person’s physical and mental health, directly affecting their learning ability and motivation. Participants who are hungry, sick or tired cannot retain information effectively, greatly affecting their chances of success. This can then affect their likelihood of completing their literacy program.

Academically successful students are more likely to remain focused and motivated to continue learning, become employed, and hold steady employment. This National Research Report identified other barriers that prevent learners from accessing and completing literacy upgrading programs, which include:

  • Previous negative experiences with learning
  • Drug and/or alcohol addiction
  • Health issues
  • Lack of family support
  • Work arrangements and lack of management/co-worker support
  • Experience with trauma
  • Fear of stigma
  • Food insecurity
  • No access to stable housing
  • Language barrier

Overall, when someone lacks financial resources to cover the costs of their basic needs, their energy and attention will be spent on their immediate needs – not their longer-term needs, with which literacy programming can help.

Not being able to access education is a major indicator that the next generation will experience poverty, too. Children of parents with low literacy skills are more likely to experience poverty and low educational outcomes, continuing the cycle across generations. In fact, one year of parental education has a bigger positive impact on whether a child will attend a post-secondary institution than an extra $50,000 in parental income.

Children of low-literate parents are exposed to 30,000,000 fewer words and enter kindergarten with a much larger skills gap than their peers. This can lead to long-term deficits in learning. Students who don’t read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school than proficient readers, increasing their likelihood of experiencing poverty and social exclusion.

The impact on marginalized communities

The consequences of low literacy rates are particularly dire for marginalized communities such as Indigenous peoples, newcomers to Canada and individuals with disabilities. Indigenous peoples in Canada have lower literacy rates than the general population. This has significant implications for their economic and social well-being, with Indigenous peoples being disproportionately affected by poverty and social exclusion.

Newcomers to Canada also face significant barriers in accessing literacy programs and services, particularly those who are refugees or asylum seekers. Limited language skills and cultural barriers can make it challenging to access education and employment opportunities, thus extending the poverty cycle.

Additionally, individuals with disabilities face significant challenges in accessing literacy programs and services, particularly those with cognitive disabilities such as dyslexia. These individuals may require specialized support and accommodations to improve their literacy skills, which may not be readily available, leading to further barriers to education and employment opportunities.

Overall, low literacy skills often lead to social exclusion and limited access to essential services such as healthcare and financial services. Individuals with low literacy skills may struggle to navigate complex forms and procedures, making accessing government programs and services challenging. They may also face challenges in managing their finances and accessing financial institutions, leading to a cycle of debt and financial instability.

The benefits of strong literacy skills

Low literacy is costly for the entire world. According to the World Literacy Foundation, lacking the skills to read and understand information costs the global economy $1.5 trillion annually. Furthermore, as the literacy rate doubles, so does the per capita income. More education, knowledge and skills can increase employment opportunities and productivity. Individuals are more likely to be employed and stay employed for longer periods.

Almost every area of an adult’s life can be positively impacted when they have strong literacy skills. More literate adults are likelier to adopt more preventive health measures, such as immunization, leading to better health outcomes. Literacy promotes lifelong learning and creates more academic opportunities that allow us to adapt to our fast-changing world.

Having strong literacy skills helps much more than achieving financial stability. It can lead to better inclusion and provide individuals with the skills needed to face challenges in daily life, improve confidence and increase resilience.

Besides benefits for individuals, promoting literacy positively affects an entire population. It helps increase the overall income and advancement of a country’s workforce. This, in turn, creates more stable communities and a more positive future for the next generation.

Education can end poverty

A UNESCO study found that if every adult received two or more years of education or finished secondary school, 60 million people would no longer be living in poverty. And if all students achieved basic reading levels, 171 million people could overcome poverty.

For the 63 per cent of adults with low literacy who are women, each additional year of school can increase their earnings by up to 20 per cent. A mother’s reading skill is the greatest factor to affect her children’s future academic success, outweighing other factors, like neighborhood and family income.

If everyone received the same education, there would be less inequality, and poverty would decrease by 39 per cent.

Increasing the chances of success

A literacy program’s structure and delivery method are what provide learners with the opportunity to gain the skills they need. When set up effectively, there is a higher chance of program success.

Community-based literacy programs that serve as a single-access point for other services within the community – such as a literacy program setting that also offers employment services or counselling – are especially beneficial for learners.

The same goes for literacy programs that help learners create social networks within their neighbourhoods, meeting the general needs of their community and fostering a positive learning environment. Research shows that providing adequate training to instructors and volunteers, keeping class sizes small and involving learners in planning can also positively contribute to program success rates.

Key takeaways

When we have strong literacy skills, the quality of our life improves. We’re less likely to live in poverty and further reduce the chances of our next generation living in poverty. We’re more likely to experience greater access to employment opportunities, leading to higher income potential. We’re also able to participate in our local democracy and are more likely to vote.

At the same time, as our literacy level improves, so does our self-esteem. We’re better equipped to express ourselves, which can lead to greater confidence and the chance to live a happy, healthy life.

Visit our website for more information on free literacy programming and resources that can help develop stronger literacy skills.