While Canada can feel smug about its recent success in international testing, the underlying effects of poverty on children’s health, academic achievement, and society in general persist in disturbing ways.
Despite an all-party House of Commons resolution to end child poverty by the year 2000, the child poverty rate persists at 1989 levels, and, according to the Conference Board of Canada, the increase in income inequality has even been more rapid in Canada than in the U.S. since the mid-1990s The relationship between social-economic status (SES) and school achievement has been clearly established, so it is instructive to examine the achievement of low-SES students living in Toronto, which has the Ontario’s highest proportion of children living in poverty.
According to Ben Levin, family income can account for up to 50 percent of differences in academic achievement. “Thirty years of careful social science has provided overwhelming evidence that socioeconomic status (SES) has been and continues to be the best single predictor of how much schooling students will obtain, how well they will do at their studies, and what their life prospects beyond school are.”
The most recent data published by the Toronto District School Board showed that only 16 percent of students who took most of their courses at the academic level in Grades 9 and 10 dropped out, compared to 56 percent of those taking most of their courses at the practical level. Students living in higher-income neighbourhoods dropped out at a rate of 16 percent, compared to 43 percent for students living in low-income neighbourhoods.
Tracing achievement back to Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) math and literacy results in Grade 3 reveals a 20-30 percent difference in achievement between students coming from families earning over $100,000 per year and families earning less than $30,000 – and the gap widens by Grade 6. These students come predominately from visible minority, immigrant families, where English is the second language. They are disproportionately single parent moms, boys, and/or from families with low levels of education.
In Canada, we have narrowed the achievement gap between rich and poor by focusing on these injustices in society and developing programs to address them in schools. Whether it is the Aboriginal Schools, Songide’ewin, or Rising Sun in Winnipeg, or Pathways to Education in Toronto, we have proven that schools can make a difference – sometimes a big difference. Across Canada, the Reading Recovery program has proven conclusively that the reading level of children in poverty can be raised to match that of their advantaged peers, and reading competency is the best predictor of academic – and economic – success.
Schools can do a lot, but they can’t do it all. Child poverty persists as a cancer in our society, taking a toll on children’s health, development, and school achievement – and on the public purse. The public cost of poverty in Canada in 2007 was low-balled at $24.4 billion. Poverty contributes significantly to healthcare costs, policing costs, diminished educational outcomes, and depressed productivity. In 2004, the OECD concluded, “failure to tackle the poverty . . . of families and their children is not only socially reprehensible, but it will also weigh heavily on countries’ capacity to sustain economic growth in years to come.”
As Ben Levin has pointed out, “Poverty is such an enormous negative influence, that it must be part of the educational reform agenda whether justified on grounds of economic interest or of social justice.”
Yes, by international standards we have made a lot of progress. But, as current statistics show, we still have a long way to go.
 Conference board of Canada, Hot Topic: World Income Inequality: Is the World Becoming More Unequal? (2011). Accessed September 28, 2011 from http://www.conferenceboard.ca/hcp/hot-topics/worldInequality.aspx
 Children’s Aid Society of Toronto, Greater Trouble in Greater Toronto: Child Poverty in the GTA Report (Fact Sheet, Toronto, 2008).
 Ben Levin, “Educational Responses to Poverty,” Canadian Journal of Education 20, no. 2 (1995).
 S. Brown, Making the Grade: The Grade 9 Cohort of Fall 2002: Overview (Toronto District School Board, 2009).
 J. O’Reilly an M. Yau, 2008 Parent Census, Kindergarten-Grade 6: System Overview and Detailed (Toronto District School Board, 2009).
 J. Douetil, “At Last, Some Good News about Children in Poverty,” Literacy Today, Summer, 2011.
 National Council of Welfare, The Dollars and Sense of Solving Poverty, vol. 130 (Autumn, 2011).
 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Messages from PISA 2000 (Paris: 2004).
 Levin, 21.