Echoes of Childhood Poverty: Composing Lives in Higher Education
A submission to the Canadian Poverty Reduction Strategy
Submitted by Elaine J. Laberge
Doctoral student (Sociology), University of Victoria; MA; BA
#104, 268 Superior Street
Victoria, BC V8V 1T3
This submission is grounded in my master’s research on how growing up in systemic childhood poverty shapes undergraduate students’ lives—and, my own lived experiences as a student who comes from generational poverty.
I scrub my skin raw, but I can’t wash away the stain of poverty. It’s deeply embedded in my self-identity. The shame was bearable until university—a place I believed was never meant for people like me. Now, I live in fear of being outed and ousted.
This is part of my story. As a child, I struggled silently against the relentless burn of hunger and uncertainty. I scavenged secretly in the shadows and margins of my rural childhood landscape to silence the sting of emptiness. The educational landscape offered me a place for sanctuary and escape; however, solace was elusive. Early on, I sensed there was no space for me in education: I was Other; I was that girl from that family. I was labeled as deficit and not worthy of an education. I was storied as unable and unfit to learn before entering grade one by social workers, educators, and institutions. On the educational landscape I became that teenage runaway from a poverty-stricken home, destined to become another one of those girls. I learned early on not to trust educational spaces. I learned how to work and survive. I silently accepted educators’ and institutions’ damaging assessments. As an adult, I continue to experience disconnect and tension as I try to compose a life on the educational landscape that named me outcast. Today, the life I am composing in higher education continues to be shaped by my experiences of growing up in abject poverty. The challenges I face as I compose a life in this place are daunting—and, often lived silently.
This narrative inquiry unfolded alongside three undergraduate students at a large, research-intensive, western Canadian university to understand how echoes of systemic childhood poverty reverberate through their experiences as they compose lives on the university landscape. While countries such as Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and to a much lesser extent Canada, are adopting “widening access” and equity, diversity, and inclusivity (EDI) policies, researchers often ignore the very poor, instead focusing on the experiences of working-class students (Ivana, 2017; Lehman, 2013). Research that does exist assumes a uniform effect of poverty and uniform experiences on higher educational landscapes (Aries & Seider, 2005; Krause & Armitage, 2014), which reduces students’ lives to a single story (Adichie, 2009). The varied needs of students whose lives have been shaped by abject childhood poverty are not being adequately addressed or reflected in current educational policies (Nesbit, 2006).
I engaged in in-depth research conversations with Sarah, margaret rose, and Mildred over a nine-month period, seeking to understand their lived experiences narratively; that is, over time, social relations, and place (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). Participants self-identified with their subjective definitions of poverty. Narrative accounts were negotiated between participants and the researcher.
This inquiry makes visible how profoundly silenced poverty-class students’ lived experiences are on the university landscape and within “widening access” and “widening participation” to higher education initiatives. Administrators’, advisors’, and professors’ belief in participants (Elbow, 2008) was a game changer and crucial for their survival in university. Second, while poverty is seen in a box, systemic childhood poverty cannot be erased from participants’ embodied selves; that is, childhood poverty shapes an entire life (Adair, 2003). Third, participation in this research was an act of resistance to living in the shadows and margins of university landscapes because of a fear being outed and ousted if their origins become visible. As higher education institutions grapple with “widening access” and creating sustainable EDI landscapes, poverty-class students must become a key source of knowledge in shaping socially just policies and pedagogies. These students need to become part of the discussion rather the object of discussion (Adair, 2003).
Shifting poverty-class students’ lived experiences to the centre. If there is a true understanding that “a high quality learning” experience shapes students lives, and that this contributes to shaping Canadian society, then making visible how childhood poverty shapes undergraduate students’ experiences allows for Greene’s (1995) “imaginative capacity” so we may “look at things as if they could be otherwise” (p. 19). This research does not provide generalizations; it makes visible knowledge that can shape higher education in ways that can make shifts in equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) policies and pedagogies. What is visible through the participants’ experiences is that their “location in the world,” and on higher education landscapes, silences them (Greene 1995, p. 19). Going forward, the foundation upon which to create and enact “widening access” and EDI policies must include poverty-class students’ lived experiences and knowledge. In this way, critical shifts can happen:
- Their lived experiences can become valuable sources of knowledge for creating policy and understanding systemic and structural, class-based inequality. We can open up spaces for conversations where “students experiences and their historical, social, and cultural conditions … [are] viewed as primary sources of knowledge (Ghosh and Adbi, 2013, p. 23);
- Poverty-class students can come out from the margins and shadows without fear that their origins may be visible to others; that is, how their lives have been shaped is respected rather than silenced and shamed (Adair, 2003);
- How childhood poverty can become included “in the research agenda” in ways that do not further stigmatize and alienate students (Marshall et al., 1996, p. 22);
- Lessen “the distance between [poverty-class students] … world[s] and the world of the classroom” by valuing their lived experiences (Polakow 1993, p. 152);
- Interrupt dominant assimilation fake it till you make it higher education narratives that work towards devaluing poverty-class students lived experiences and “targeting them for reshaping” (Polakow 1993, p. 152);
- We can “hold back from generalizing and … draw on many sources of knowledge, both academic and non-academic, to avoid imposing yet another top-down analytical structure” on students whose lives have been shaped by poverty (Rimstead 2001, p. 4);
- Poverty-class students must become part of the conversation rather than the object of discussion (Adair, 2003);
- Collectively, we can start methodologically practicing Elbow’s (2008) believing game so poverty-class students, too, can realize their dreams;
- Do not create mythical poster students who are to represent what poor student “success” looks like. This reduces lives to a single story (Adichie, 2009) while excluding the complexity of how lives are shaped by childhood poverty;
- Interrupt the accommodation narrative that positions poverty-class students as less than and “not-my-problem:” poverty-class students are seeking support not help. This is articulated by Mildred, through a found poem created from research conversation transcripts:
Got to be something more than to push me higher
Not to feel hopeless
Don’t need people to come and save us
Everybody plays a role in something
We’re not weak
Bringing social class to the centre of discussions:
The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC, 2011) report says, “Research demonstrates that variables with the greatest impact on university participation rates are: household income, parental education and the student’s high school grades.” (p. 46) Statistically, this may be “true”; however, as this research demonstrates, this is only part of the story. Nor, I argue, do statistics make visible Young’s (2005) intergenerational narrative reverberations of how poverty-class undergraduate students’ experiences are shaped over time, social relations, and place (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). This research can open up conversations regarding, as Sayer (2005) says, “The lottery of the market and of birth and the intergenerational transmission of capital can produce (and have widely produced) class inequalities even in the absence of these forms of discrimination” (p. 948; italics added). Sayer (2005) advocates for trying to “further [the] understanding of class by emphasizing the moral dimensions of how it is experienced” (p. 959; italics added). The same holds true for this research.
Until we (the collective “we”) acknowledge that the myth of the classless society is just that, and the quest for assimilating the middle-class higher education landscape keeps the riff-raff out, is itself ousted and outed, we do not have to acknowledge, or challenge, higher education landscapes as sites of uncontested privilege. We need not “find flaws in our thinking” or get close to the “rhetoric of experience” (Elbow 2008, pp. 7-8). Clandinin (2013) writes of the importance of making visible and interrupting “institutional stories” (p. 25) of higher education that keep poverty-class students in the margins, drive them off the university landscape, or keep them outside the higher education gates. The dominant narratives that Sarah, margaret rose, Mildred and myself have made visible in this thesis, are silencing and damaging dogmas that support, as Brady, Blome, and Kleider (2016) say, the “self-sustaining quality of institutions” where institutions “tend to continue to affect poverty and inequality without active maintenance” (p. 123). Higher education sites continue as landscapes where SES “disadvantaged” students are situated as “outcasts on the inside” (Bourdieu & Champagne 1999, p. 421).
Adair (2003), writing from a place of lived experiences, draws attention to damaging and deficit-based narratives of students whose lives have been shaped by childhood poverty:
Trying to stabilize and make sense of unpalatably complex issues of poverty and oppression and attempting to obscure hegemonic states of representation, these narratives reduce and collapse the lives and experiences of poor [people] to deceptively simplistic dramas, which are then offered for public consumption. (p. 29)
A journey to the margins:
What became evident through this research (and public discussions I have given along the inquiry journey), is that there are individual professors and advisors who are deeply committed to creating socially just higher education landscapes and experiences for poverty-class students. However, as Sarah, margaret rose, Mildred, and myself have learned, it takes a community to create the kind of change that is sustainable and that allows poverty-class students to also realize their dreams. While individual professors and advisors can be Lessard’s (2017) game changer, and provide for Greene’s (1995) “imagined capacity,” (p. 19) this, too, is a Canadian issue: higher education institutions continue to perpetuate privilege at the expense of those who do not sit in the centre.
Second, I bring forward from AUCC’s (2011) report, and which directly relates with and to this research, is the AUCC ‘s description of the importance of students’ higher education experiences: “a high quality learning experience produces more engaged and productive students, who, upon graduation, become Canada’s future lawyers, doctors, teachers, thinkers, scientists, managers, leaders and innovators” (p. 40; italics added).
Let us tackle the unexamined:
Higher education social class philosophies and practices that attend to lived experiences and alternate ways of knowing and being, may open up conversations and shift understandings of how growing up in poverty shapes experiences in higher education; to begin to tackle, as the late sociologist Elizabeth Cohen says, poverty—the “unexamined 600-pound gorilla” in the room—“that affects [North] American education today” (as cited in Berliner 2006, p. 951). Cohen’s gorilla remains largely “in the shadows, where the light is not as bright” (Berliner 2006, p. 951). Becoming wakeful to this phenomenon means gazing into “the dark” and seeing how violent our history is, and continues to be, towards the poor (Berliner 2006, p. 951).
Polakow (1993) is willing to engage in these hard dialogues; she makes visible problematic conversations of problematic bodies on education landscapes and in societies. Polakow (1993) dares to talk about the 600-pound gorilla in our midst: this stubborn colonial hangover ensures that the “callous indifference that eroded [and erodes] countless [poor] children’s lives” continues to this day (p. 17). As Polakow (1993) states, “‘the noble savage’ is far removed from the grim realities of a destitute childhood” and how this destitution makes them revolting, disgusting, illegitimate, and wasteful Others and outcasts on education landscapes (p. 17; Swanson, 2004). The disdain of the poor is woven into “the very fabric of the [Canadian] culture and the corresponding lifestyles of the poor and destitute (Polakow 1993, p. 17; see also Tyler, 2013; Adair, 2003; Sayer, 2002). I suggest that the early Canadian-British immigration policies are also woven into education policies and pedagogies such as class confessionals and policies which refuse to make space for poverty-class students lives in the making (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000; Clandinin, 2013; Huber, Caine, Huber, & Stevens 2013). I suggest, that as long as these histories are silenced, legacies of displacing the poor, capitalist and neoliberal tales of problematizing the individual, and patriarchal attitudes towards lives shaped by poverty will, continue to reverberate over time, place, space, and lives (Young, 2003; Sayer 2005). Developing responsive and inclusive classroom pedagogies that may influence institutional policies, I suggest, can shift these reverberations. These shifts however, require taking up conversations that bump up against popular social class narratives: the myths of the classless society and the American Dream that has been mythologized—and, that are pathological.
A view from the institutional corner office:
I draw from The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada’s (AUCC) (2011) discussion on Trends In Higher Education: Volume 1 – Enrolment in relation to this narrative inquiry. First, I make visible how they discuss “access” to higher education:
Demographic projections suggest Canada will not be able to rely on population growth to fuel our economy in the coming decade. By 2030, the population over the age of 65 will double, while the working age population (25-64 years of age) will grow by just eight percent. There will simply not be enough population growth to drive the kinds of increases in the overall size of our labour force that would be needed to support an increasingly dependent, aging population. Canadians are in for a major demographic shift.
To respond to the anticipated economic, social and labour market demands resulting from this demographic shift, universities will need to both expand access to higher education for untapped segments of the population and international students, and increase the quality of education students receive. (p. 5; italics added)
While it is not clear who the regional or national “untapped segments” are, there is a decided lack of focus on creating “widening access” and EDI policies that make room for poverty-class students (and low socio-economic students, which normally relates to students from working-class backgrounds). Canadian universities and college universities lag far behind, for example, Australia, the UK, and the USA, in trying to tap into the SES “disadvantaged” student segment. Powerful voices, such as the AUCC, which could nationally guide “widening access” initiatives, seem to be silent. Although the reasons for this are beyond the scope of this narrative inquiry and submission, there is a decided lack of awareness that poverty-class students are already in higher education and just as important, are an untapped segment of the Canadian population. To illustrate, Mildred (an immigrant from western Africa) says, (through a found poem created from her transcript):
Nobody’s a bum
What’s keeping them at this place?
Don’t pull my hair
No, you need to understand
Give me the opportunity to say something
While both Sarah and margaret rose have found community through their Native Studies department and Aboriginal Student Services Centre, Mildred (an immigrant from western Africa) has no community and does not have the chance to say anything about how the life she is composing on the higher education landscape is shaped by childhood poverty. Until this master’s research and poverty reduction strategy submission, neither did I. Faceless “poverty-class” students remain hidden in the shadows and margins of higher education landscapes; countless people from poverty will never be able to make the journey to higher education; generational poverty continues; amazing potential remains untapped.
Government and institution roles:
- Federal, provincial, and municipal governments must play an active role in promoting socioeconomically diverse student populations. There is a general understanding that education is critical to combat poverty; however, poor students continue to remain an underrepresented population in higher education. The barriers that poor students face to entering into and transitioning through university remain largely ignored.
- We need to move past the over-reliance of statistics in order to understand how childhood poverty shapes students lives inside and outside of university. That is, economic definitions reduce lives to statistics. Subjective understandings of poverty bring us closer to more nuanced ways of understanding how devastating poverty is and how poverty echoes across generations.
- Increased attention needs to be paid to single mothers in poverty who need to access higher education so their children will not become the next generation of the Canadian poor needs to be addressed.
- One of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s future challenge areas is in the area of higher education. Canadian universities can become world leaders if they can create sustainable EDI policies that include and support students from impoverished backgrounds. These institutions can be reimagined in ways that can create inclusive and socially justice communities and a Canada that is willing to embrace how colonialism continues to have devastating impacts of the lives of the masses.
- A concerted effort needs to be made to make visible Canadian beliefs about poverty. There is a looming gap in Canadian knowledge and beliefs about poverty, how colonialism and British notions of social class shape higher education, capitalism, and neoliberalism shape the experiences. Universities were built for privileged males.
- Encourage research (in a multitude of different ways) that makes visible the shame and stigma that is attached to poverty (both historically and contemporarily);
- “Institutions [such as universities] tend to continue to affect poverty and inequality without active maintenance” (Brady, Blome & Kleider, 2016, p. 123). That is, universities were built by the lower classes for the privileged upper classes. For example, archaic institutional policies are used by those in power to perpetuate privilege and keep prescriptive policies firmly entrenched. This includes:
- Entrance requirements solely based on grades that lack context;
- Ranking the importance of volunteer work (e.g., looking after your children or working multiple jobs is not considered important in relation to the student who travel abroad doing volunteer work);
- The educational opportunities at a rural or inner city (kindergarten to high school) schools often do not afford poor students with diverse learning opportunities (i.e., university readiness);
- Poor students’ knowledge and skills remain largely ignored;
- A lack of support once poor students enter onto the higher education landscape (e.g., there are no “poverty” clubs where students can share their experiences). Places and spaces do not exist where Sarah, margaret rose, and Mildred can meet with other students to discuss how systemic childhood poverty shapes their undergraduate experiences; there is no student “poverty” club, or resources made available to create spaces and relationships that may be Lessard’s game changer for them. Although Sarah and margaret rose are part of a community on the higher education landscape, they too are homogenized. That is, there is the assumption that all Aboriginal students have the same experiences, academic trajectories (and dreams), and share exactly the same social characteristics.
- Regardless of research contrary to the myth of the classless society, Sayer (2002) notes that class “continues to figure centrally in people’s lives, especially for those who … lack the privilege to be able to ignore it” (n.p.; see also Skeggs, 1997).
- Universities cannot simply adopt “widening access” or EDI policies from other institutions. This results in the perpetuation of privilege; the assumption that there is a cookie-cutter solution readily available can result in increased exclusive and punitive EDI policies.
- Universities must decide whom they want to include and exclude and be transparent. If EDI policies and pedagogies are not going to include “poverty-class” students then be honest.
It is not all about money:
Higher education policy makers use money as a product that will help “poverty-class” students “succeed” because it will remove the poisonous toxins of growing up in poverty (Shotwell, 2016, p. 6). The research literature and policies enact the belief that we will be pure students—or, at least able to “fake it till we make it” and assimilate the pure, middle-class higher education culture if we can just rub the green ointment on our skin. As a result, we can erase our impure, toxic identities and how are lives are shaped by injustice and suffering. In this way, those who hold privilege and power do not have to implicate themselves in the exclusion of students from poverty in higher education or their role in the perpetuation of privilege and intergenerational poverty.
(Re)Imagining ways forward—through and with community:
I suggest that the desensitization to social class and poverty can change through non-prescriptive higher education policies and pedagogies. I am drawn again to Greene (1995) and the extraordinary potential of creating meaningful education spaces that can create social change at, and from, all levels.
Greene (1995) writes that “Like freedom, [community] has to be achieved by persons offered the space in which to discover what they recognize together and appreciate in common; they have to find ways to make inter-subjective sense” (p. 39). She tells us that these places “ought to be space[s] infused by the kind of imaginative awareness that enables those involved to image alternative possibilities for their own becoming and their group’s becoming” (p. 39). This is hopeful. Poverty-class students have the potential to shape game changer and belief in policies that support them in “releasing their imagination” (Greene, 1995); that is, if their lived experiences become invaluable sources of policy and pedagogical knowledge. We all can begin to influence and shape higher education “widening access” and EDI policies in order to shape socially just higher education systems. We can make noise to drown out silencing neoliberal poverty-class higher education policies and pedagogies that caste these students in a box.
MA thesis and abstract:
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Ivana, G.-I. (2017). Fake it till you make it: imagined social capital. The Sociological Review, 65(1), 52–66.
Krause, K.-L., & Armitage, L. (2014). Australian student engagement, belonging, retention and success: a synthesis of the literature (pp. 1–47). York, UK: The Higher Education Academy.
Lehmann, W. (2013). Habitus Transformation and Hidden Injuries: Successful Working-class University Students. Sociology of Education, 87(1), 1–15.
Marshall, G., Roberts, S., & Burgoyne, C. (1996). Social class and the underclass in Britain and the USA. British Journal of Sociology, 47(1), 22–44.
Nesbit, T. (2006). What’s the Matter with Social Class? Adult Education Quarterly, 56(3), 171–87.
Polakow, V. (1993). Lives on the Edge: Single Mothers and their Children in the Other America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
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Sayer, A. (2002). What Are You Worth?: Why Class is an Embarrassing Subject. Sociological Research Online, 7(3), n.p. Retrieved from http://www.socresonline.org.uk/7/3/sayer.html
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Swanson, J. (2004). Poor-Bashing: The Politics of Exclusion. Toronto: Between the Lines.
The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. (2011). Trends in Higher Education: Volume 1 – Enrolment (pp. 1–70).
Tyler, I. (2013). The Riots of the Underclass?: Stigmatisation, Mediation and the Government of Poverty and Disadvantage in Neoliberal Britain. Sociological Research Online, 18(4), n.p. Retrieved from http://www.socresonline.org.uk/18/4/6.html
Young, M. I. (2005). Pimatisiwin: walking in a good way: a narrative inquiry into language as identity. Winnipeg: Pemmican Publications.
Thank you so much for sharing your research and perspectives with us. If we ever sounded quiet, you can be assured that it was because we were so moved by what you were saying.
Thank you for sharing your thesis; we look forward to reading (and learning from) it. Should you have any other feedback on the Canadian Poverty Reduction Strategy (e.g., ideas for how we can meaningfully engage persons with a lived experience of poverty), please feel free to submit them to our inbox: email@example.com.
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 Bourdieu and Champagne’s (1999) chapter is titled “Outcasts on the Inside” (p. 421).