Poverty, what is it? A discussion booklet for students in Grades 5 to 8

By Pauline Théoret
October 24, 2014


“Children are cold
Families are hungry
Dads are overworked
Mothers are crying
Nothing is done
Society is broken”1

The idiom ‘Out of the mouth of babes’ often time refers to the surprising understanding of children of otherwise complex issues. This poem was how one middle school student shared feelings in a classroom exploration of the issue of poverty at the local level. The students thought about and discussed the issue of poverty from a variety of angles: What is it? Does it exist everywhere? What does it look like?

The Canadian Teachers’ Federation Advisory Committee on Diversity and Human Rights undertook an innovative way to teach about an issue that is part of every provincial and territorial curriculum in Social Studies, Health and/or Language Arts. Committee members, all teachers, facilitated discussions based on a standard set of questions developed by the committee, in grades 5 to 8 classrooms in Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick. While some may say that the 200+ students who took part in this initiative are not representative of our country as a whole, that’s not the issue. The issue is that no child, regardless of his or her age, region or social origin, should be living in poverty in this country.

The student responses clearly articulated a critical need to address a societal issue that plagues every country in the world, even a wealthy one like ours! As one student said, “Probably lots of people in our school live in poverty. Like one out of three. That’s about 50 kids in my school, and I’m one of them.”2

According to the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, Canada’s projected budget for 2015-2016 estimates a surplus of $7.8 billion.3 Canadian household debt levels in 2013 were equivalent to over 90% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product.4 To quote yet another idiom, is this “striking a balance”? How will this fiscal paradox support children and families living in poverty? A $7.8 billion surplus means our government has the ability to honour the 1989 promise — to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000 — that a previous Conservative government supported unanimously in the House of Commons. Child poverty remains to a great extent a question of political will. Twenty five years later there are as many children living in poverty as there were then.

One student expressed a need to make political leaders empathize with those who live with poverty every day saying, “I think [everyone in the government] should have to live in poverty for a year to understand what it’s like”.5 That is a great suggestion from someone who knows and understands the unfairness of it all, words of wisdom “out of the mouth of babes!”

Poverty, what is it? A discussion booklet for students in grades 5 to 8 was developed as a supporting tool for the CARE Theme of Imagineaction6 and to complement the Keep the Promise campaign. As the education partner in this ongoing social justice campaign, we know that both student interest and the development of their social identities grow from their connections to family, school, and community. We know that students resent unfairness and that their creativity and energy can “move mountains” to seek a balance in accessibility and equity for every person in this country of ours.

We also know that the right to, and the potential for, successful educational outcomes for all students are indelibly linked to conditions in which they live. We call on all teachers to involve their students in acting, speaking out and effecting change. Get your students involved in an issue that touches them directly and one excellent way is to join Imagineaction in the Keep the Promise campaign today.

For additional information on the Poverty Booklet, please visit or

1 Student response found in Poverty, what is it? A discussion booklet for students in grades 5 to 8 published by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, September 2014.

2 Ibid.

3 Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer. Economic and Fiscal Outlook 2014. [Online], Government of Canada, April 28, 2014.

4 MacDonald, David. The Federal Budget and Public Education. Presentation to the Canadian Teachers’ Federation’s National Staff Officers’ Meeting, Ottawa, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, November 2013.

5 Student response found in Poverty, what is it? A discussion booklet for students in grades 5 to 8 published by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation. September 2014.

6 Imagineaction is a CTF program that supports teachers and students with projects involving social action, critical thinking, community support and improvement of Canada’s democratic society. Check it out at

Pauline Théoret is a program officer of CTF’s International and Social Justice Program. She is currently on leave.

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