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The Intersection of Adult Foundational Literacy and Poverty – BLOG #3

Stepping into the field

Statistics Canada confirms that “literacy skill level and household income are positively related.”

In an information based economy, people who struggle with literacy have a hard time getting a job or making more than a minimum wage. Likewise, higher literacy and numeracy skills are associated with greater employment levels and higher earnings’

In Canada, as many as 4.3 million people are living with poverty. Though evidence suggests that raising literacy rates is one of the best ways to change this, literacy often plays a limited role in coordinated strategies to eliminate poverty.”  Discussion Paper- National Forum on Literacy and Poverty, May 2017 (see attached)[i]

 The Calgary Poverty Reduction Initiative (CPRI)  Enough for All report has identified that 1 in 10 Calgarians live in poverty, that 1 in 5 are concerned about not having enough money for food and 1 in 3 Calgarians are concerned about not having enough money for housing. The resulting poverty-reduction Enough for All strategy is built upon the vision “together we can end poverty in Calgary”and with the following rationale in mind:

“Despite an extensive system of programs and services provided throughout Calgary by more than 1,200 agencies, many people have difficulty accessing and benefitting from those services. The challenges in this area are great; however, we see complex challenges as great opportunities to collaborate to implement impactful solutions.”[ii]

Enough for All aims to reduce poverty in Calgary by 50% by 2023 through community-driven actions and cross-sector collective impact approach based on shared understanding of the issue and mutually reinforcing activities. 

As literacy, poverty and exclusion are all part of the same problem, adult foundational learning and literacy field has an essential role to play in making this goal achievable.

To develop a measurable snap shot of the adult literacy and poverty reduction sectors we conducted in- person interviews and hosted focus groups. The face to face interviews were with 12 participants from 11 different organizations representing both those working with adults living in poverty and those working in adult foundational literacy. The 2 focus groups included input from 36 participants with representation from 12 different organizations in these two sectors. The participants included frontline workers/instructors, coordinators, program managers, executive directors and researchers.

This qualitative process provided the opportunity to meet passionate Calgarians who have a strong commitment to the adults and families who come to their agencies for services and resources.

Findings in the Intersection

Literacy and poverty are complex issues. We were not surprised to learn that both sectors describe themselves as working to respond to a continuum of complexity depending on the needs of the adult who engage with their organization. Both sectors intersect with Calgarians who have many of the same issues such as mental or physical health challenges, employment and employability, housing insecurity, food insecurity, intergenerational trauma, lack of resources, structural and systemic barriers to accessing services, low self-concept/helplessness.

Most of the literacy organizations we interviewed were very aware of whether or not their clients might be living in poverty. In fact, many of these organizations receive some or all of their grant funding to specifically target adults who have financial and other barriers. Most adult literacy organizations find themselves providing services and goods such as transport passes, childcare, lunch or snacks, flexible times, and relevant services. Many find themselves in the situation where they are bridging the reading/writing and digital literacy skills of learners, and for learners, who are trying to access the increasingly online services and resources that are designed to help adults living below the poverty line.

Poverty serving organizations have clear mandates and serve our most vulnerable populations in times of crisis and healing. These organizations were generally not aware of adult literacy and the impact literacy skills gaps might have on their client’s ability to access and engage in services. They readily connected a new literacy awareness to instances where unintended barriers (like complicated forms, digital access to resources) could flag literacy challenges in some of their clients. A few of these organizations have endeavoured to close the literacy skills gap for some clients by ensuring that someone on staff is familiar with plain language principles as well as the adult literacy resources and services in the community.

Next Steps

It is our belief that strengthening the relationship between the adult literacy system in Calgary with the poverty reduction system/ stakeholders will increase collective knowledge about the initiatives in both systems, surface new possibilities to support and engage with each other to address poverty, and create new opportunities for marginalized learners in the communities they connect to for support.

Please join us at the Intersection of Literacy and Poverty symposium on May 2, 2018. The registration link is below and registration closes on April 24th.

We will have a good cross section of Calgarians from the adult literacy sector and the poverty reduction sector. Together we will explore ways to work intentionally and effectively as allies in poverty reduction.  Presenters for the day are Stephen Faul, CEO of Frontier College who works in literacy and has a strong commitment to addressing poverty; and Carol Proulx, CUPE Literacy Coordinator who will discuss CUPE’s long investment in literacy with respect to employment/employability and workplace. We will also hear from some Calgary organizations who are working in the intersection of literacy and poverty. And, we will have time to speak together as a community about this intersection.

As Stephen Faul, the keynote speaker at our Symposium says “What could we do a little differently to achieve better outcomes?”

References and Links

Symposium registration link:

The morning keynote speaker will be Stephen Faul, President and CEO of Frontier College. You can listen to his April, 2017 interview on Vancouver’s Roundhouse radio.

The afternoon keynote speaker is Carol Proulx, Literacy Coordinator, CUPE National Office. Here is CUPE’s latest report on Adult Literacy in Canada.

Adult Literacy in Canada 2017

[i] Discussion Paper – 2017 GWL Literacy & Poverty



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