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Unearth this buried treasure: adult education in Manitoba

When she was 34 years old and a single mother of four living on social assistance in a large public housing complex in Winnipeg’s North End, Aja Oliver saw a sign at a community centre for an Adult Learning Centre. She had not finished high school, had struggled, as did everyone in her family, with the many complexities of life in poverty, and was fed up with being on social assistance. She ventured in. Her life has not been the same since.

July 5, 2022

5-minute read

Less than a decade later, Aja is a highly-skilled counsellor at the North End Women’s Centre, and is well on her way to an undergraduate degree at the University of Winnipeg. Her younger sister, inspired by Aja’s success, will soon graduate as a health care aide and hopes to go on to the Licensed Practical Nursing program at Red River College. Some of her cousins have returned to high school, her daughter has graduated high school, and Aja says, “in our house it is now an expectation to graduate high school.” At least for her family, Aja has broken the cycle of intergenerational trauma and complex poverty that had long been, for them, the norm.

Adult education works. It is a buried treasure. We need more of it.

Poverty and adult education

Manitoba has suffered for decades with a particularly high incidence of poverty. Data from 2018, the most recent available, show that 87,730 children in Manitoba were growing up in families living in poverty—the highest rate of any province (SPCW 2020). The situation is worse for Indigenous children. Macdonald and Wilson (2016) found that in Manitoba, 76% of First Nations children on reserve and 42% of Indigenous children in Winnipeg were growing up in families living in poverty. In 2019 the northern Manitoba federal riding of Churchill-Keewatinook Aski had the highest rate of child poverty in all of Canada (SPCW 2021: 3).

Poverty is a key factor—perhaps the key factor—in producing poor school outcomes for children and youth, because children growing up in poor families are more likely to do poorly in school. This has been documented repeatedly in detailed studies prepared by the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy, but studies conducted for decades and in all parts of the world have found the same. Children growing up in poor families are less likely to succeed in school, and are then more likely themselves to experience poverty, creating a vicious cycle that can ripple across generations.

Evidence of this is the astonishing fact that in 2013/14, a Manitoba study found that there were at that time 192,600 people in Manitoba between the ages of 18 and 65 whose literacy levels were so low that they could not fully function in society.

Part of the solution—admittedly not the whole solution—is adult education. By adult education I mean what is sometimes called adult basic education—educational activities aimed at achieving sufficient levels of literacy, numeracy and other essential skills so that it becomes possible to obtain employment, or to qualify for further education and/or training. In Manitoba this means both the mature high school diploma offered by Adult Learning Centres, which requires that students complete eight high school credits (including grade 12 English and Math), and Adult Literacy Programs, which work to improve literacy and numeracy skills to the level necessary to be able to succeed with high school credits. We need more of this in order to pull more families out of poverty in the way that Aja has managed to do with her family.

Reconciliation and adult education

Adult education is also a crucial part of reconciliation. Justice Murray Sinclair has often said, “Education got us into this mess, and education will get us out of it.”

Manitoba has a particularly large Indigenous population; Winnipeg has the largest urban Indigenous population in Canada; and education is a crucially important Indigenous issue. Indigenous youth are doing less well in high school than non-Indigenous youth. Michael Mendelson (2016: 25) found that 71% of Indigenous people aged 20–24 and living on reserve in Manitoba did not have a high school diploma. Provincial data reveal that there is more than a 30 percentage point gap between the percentage of non-Indigenous students who graduate high school on time, and the percentage of Indigenous students who graduate on time. There are reasons for this: the intergenerational damage caused by residential schools and colonialism generally; the higher than average rates of poverty experienced by Indigenous Manitobans; the relentless experience of racism.

On the other hand, Indigenous adults participate in adult education at a rate approximately two and a half times their proportion of the province’s population. Many who have not completed high school return later in life, and it is adult education to which they return. As an anti-poverty initiative and as a part of reconciliation, adult education really matters.

Abysmally underfunded

Adult education ought to be an important part of the education continuum, funded equitably with K-12 and post-secondary education. And yet it has, for decades, been treated by Manitoba governments as the poor cousin of education, scarcely worthy of consideration; an afterthought, and abysmally underfunded.

Funding has been frozen for years, at a level that does not come remotely close to meeting needs. In 2009/10, combined funding for Adult Learning Centres (ALCs) and Adult Literacy Programs (ALPs) was $19.2 million; in 2019/20, the latest year for which data are available, it was $19.9 million. This was an increase in nominal terms of less than half of one percent over 10 years, which represents a decline in real terms.

ALPs have been particularly hard hit: in 2009/10 there were 42 ALPs in Manitoba; in 2019/20 there were 30. More than a quarter of all ALPs were forced to shut their doors for want of funds. This despite the fact that there were 192,600 adults in Manitoba with literacy levels so low that they could not fully function in society. There is a huge unmet demand.

The number of adults enrolled in ALCs declined from approximately 9700 in 2003/04, to 7200 in 2019/20; the numbers who graduated with the mature grade 12 diploma declined from about 1250 to 920 over the same period. These are declines of just over 25%.

Cost comparisons

In 2021 the total budgeted expenditure for education in Manitoba was approximately $3 billion. The total investment in adult education was under $20 million (Manitoba 2019/20). In other words, Manitoba invests a mere two-thirds of one percent of its total education budget in adult education.

Saving public money by cutting public expenditures on adult education is penny-wise, pound-foolish. A senior economist with the Toronto-Dominion Bank has estimated that for Canada as a whole, high levels of illiteracy were costing Canada “hundreds of billions of dollars in lost opportunity” (Gulati 2013:4). Cost-benefit studies of educational initiatives have found them to be cost effective—as is the case with childcare, the broad economic benefits significantly outweigh the costs over time (Hajer and Loxley 2021: 45–50).

Why then are we investing so little in adult education in Manitoba, when the need is so great and the potential benefits so obvious?

Poverty, power and adult education

Part of the answer is the continued commitment to neoliberal ideas, which have it that the role of government should be reduced, and that of the for-profit market increased. While this works well for the wealthy, as CCPA studies have shown repeatedly, it does not work well for adult education in Manitoba, because there are no profits to be made in educating those who are poor.

Another part of the answer is that such a high proportion of the beneficiaries of adult education, and of those who could benefit from adult education, are poor. They are among those in Manitoba with the least power—economic, political and social power. They are the precariously employed, the colonized, the racially targeted and those struggling with life in poverty. We can see this by considering the demographics of those taking adult education programs. In ALCs in 2019/20, for example, 45% of students self-identified as Indigenous, 18% declared that English was their second language, and 19% said they were employed on a part-time basis (Manitoba 2019/20) and thus were almost certainly among the precariously employed. They are, by definition, among the ranks of the marginalized, the poor and the “othered.” They are not relatively powerful. They are, in fact, among the relatively powerless. What is worse, those living in poverty and without a high school diploma are typically stigmatized and blamed for their educational “failures.”

These are almost certainly major parts of the explanation for the fact that adult education is allocated two-thirds of one percent of the total Manitoba education budget.

And yet, as Aja’s story reveals, adult education works. It works well. We have an opportunity to make major gains in fighting poverty and promoting reconciliation by dramatically expanding adult education in Manitoba. Abysmally underfunded, it is a buried treasure.

Read Jim's full report Unearth this Buried Treasure: Adult Education in Manitoba at policyalternatives.ca.

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