People have been talking a lot about privilege these days.

Some argue that because some people enjoy certain privileges—whether based on race, socio-economic or other factors —those who lack similar backgrounds are automatically disadvantaged. “Born on third, thinks he got a triple,” might be the easiest way to explain this view of privilege.  

According to Statistics Canada, one in seven people in Canada live in poverty. | Pixabay

Others dismiss the idea of privilege altogether, with the view that poverty and economic disadvantage are the result of a personal flaw or individual failing that has nothing to do with systemic factors. While none of us has any control over the social and economic status of the families into which we are born, this point of view suggests that all we have to do is ‘pull ourselves up by our bootstraps’ and solve our own problems.

Evidence suggests the latter view is based more on myth than reality.

According to Statistic Canada’s most recent figures, 4.9 million people (or one in seven) in Canada live in poverty, including 1.2 million (one in four) children. End Poverty Edmonton notes about one in eight Edmontonians are impoverished (with poverty defined as making less than $16,968 per year for a single person and $33,936 per year for a family of four). The organization suggests poverty costs the Alberta economy between $7 and $9 billion every year.

As national literacy organization Frontier College noted in a discussion paper released last year, poverty exists due to a number of compounding factors: “Things like low literacy, low income, poor health, limited mobility, social isolation, and compromised mental health can easily reinforce one another.” People living in poverty are often denied access to the educational services, supports, and opportunities that might help improve their lives.

According to a 2010 Statistics Canada study, individuals with higher levels of proficiency in reading at the age of 15 had higher levels of educational attainment and income by the time they were 25 than youth with a lower reading proficiency.

Although Statistics Canada confirms that “literacy skill level and household income are positively related,” literacy is often overlooked in poverty alleviation strategies. Complicating the matter is the reciprocal relationship; literacy impacts income and income impacts literacy.

A 2012 report from the Ontario Child and Youth Network reported that the Toronto District School Board discovered 47 per cent of students from the lowest income bracket (parents earning less than $30,000/year) met the provincial standard in reading, compared to 66 per cent of students from the highest income bracket (parents earning $100,000/year or more).

Just as privilege is passed down through generations and opens up opportunities, poverty is entrenched becauses it closes them off. Literacy is a tool we can use to break the cycle.

Nobody is suggesting it’s easy. While my oldest son was always a voracious reader, my youngest was less inclined. Instead of getting into a power struggle with him over reading, I started buying him hockey and skateboarding magazines. If your children aren’t interested in reading, get them reading about things that capture their interest. Who knows what might come of it? That young boy who didn’t want to read now spends many of his evenings writing poetry.

Membership at Edmonton Public Library is free and a weekly visit can become a tradition that nurtures reading and learning among all family members, regardless of age. Getting older siblings to read to younger ones is a strategy that helps them both and is a little easier on the nerves than listening to the television or video games.

The Centre for Family Literacy offers a number of programs to help parents support their children’s language and literacy development. They also offer free adult literacy programs and workshops.

Eradicating poverty will benefit everyone—not just those of us living in it—and raising literacy levels is one of the most important approaches. We can’t change the fact that our children weren’t born on third base, but we can get them on their way to first and second by instilling an early love of reading.


The Centre for Family Literacy

Featured Image: Poverty and literacy are related. | Pixabay