The relationship between poverty and education has been well-documented in the past. On the one hand, there’s a recognised link between higher levels of formal education and better life outcomes, including lower unemployment rates, higher wages, and a lower probability of substance abuse. At the same time, the gap in academic achievement between those who live in poverty and those who do not is vast. Schools’ transformative power for social mobility is well recognised and yet limited by poverty’s influence on dropout rates, opportunities for extracurricular activities, and time availability to devote to school endeavours.
As educators, our views on poverty will invariably impact our understanding of the poverty- school relationship and our interventions with a family (and child) affected by poverty. Adopting a more traditional, conservative view of poverty leads to placing the “blame” for a family’s poverty on individual factors including deficiencies, pathologies, or personal choices. Educators can also view poverty as the result of a parent’s inability to overcome adversity and economic hardship through hard work. What these approaches share is that they limit our capacity for understanding. They do not establish a cooperative relationship with the family, instead opting for one in which a professional (in this case, us as educators) tends to condemn the family for “not doing enough” to support the child. Educators may then view their job as that of “rescuing” the child, leading to a power imbalance with the family, further stigmatising them.
An alternative approach to poverty has been advocated for in recent years. It is one which considers the influence of structure in generating and maintaining social inequalities, and contemplates the previously mentioned breaches in academic achievement as resulting from gaps in social opportunities, fed by inequalities in institutions. These include those which impact the allocation of resources, leading to an uneven distribution of the budget (awarding less to institutions already in impoverished conditions), provision of books and technology, and even assignment of experienced teachers.
Understanding poverty in this way allows us to value the expertise of those who live in poverty and to fight alongside them for equity. In schools, this translates into being on the lookout for policies which might disproportionately impact those in low-income families — for example, imposing generalised infractions for incomplete uniforms, lack of course materials, or absences, without contextualising them regarding the students’ living conditions. This kind of contextualisation requires establishing an ongoing, open dialogue with families. That can only happen if families perceive the teacher as someone who recognises their knowledge and will stand by them and advocate for them in the pursuit of equal opportunities.
The BRIGHTER FUTURE project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.