What Causes Learning Poverty and How We Can Help (2023)

Learning poverty is a systemic problem that requires an equitable solution for all for the sake of our future.

As individuals, we’ve evolved into an era in which we fight for our rights, from the introduction of Undi18 to #kitajagakita, and we take a stand on any form of discrimination or justice. Yet there are still many voices left unheard. In many developing countries, including Malaysia, governments have been making progress with steps like announcing the abolition of school and textbooks fees to reduce learning poverty, which is based on the idea that all children should be able to read an age-appropriate text by age 10.

In an idealised world, that’d probably result with everyone being entitled to free and fair education, right? Unfortunately, learning poverty is a multilayered process in itself and the matter-of-fact is that more than one-half of children and adolescents aren’t learning worldwide. The reality is that we’ve many different layers that causes learning poverty and the question lies, are we really doing enough to tackle the roots of this serious issue? Here’s my take on the issue.

Social Class Affects Learning Poverty

Often times, you’d hear someone say, “Of course they’ll end up like this, they have no money!”. However, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes clear that ‘every child is entitled to free basic education’. Thus poverty and a lack of funds shouldn’t be an impediment to attending school. Right?

Senior lecturer from the School of Education, Hema Letchamanan, explains, “While it’s true that parents don’t have to pay for their school fees and textbooks, there are many other costs involved in schooling that parents can’t afford like transportation, school and sports uniform, meals, etc. Sometimes children may have to stop schooling to take care of their siblings or to work in order to support their families.” Which goes to show how ‘free and basic’ may not seem as easy as it sounds. Rather, it’s a systemic problem that needs to be addressed.

When tackling the topic of social classes, it’s essential to understand the layers of society. In Malaysia, there are over 2.91 million households in 2019 that are in the B40 community. However, not all households from that community are experiencing the same level of poverty. There are two levels of poverty found within the B40 community, specifically absolute and relative poverty in which could be described using Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs.

Living in the Different Kinds of Poverty

Absolute poverty is defined as the inability to keep your body in reasonable health by not being able to satisfy your basic needs. Relative poverty, on the otherhand, is defined as the family being excluded from activities and opportunities that the everyday citizens experience. This further drives the state these people are in. Some may want to improve their standard of living while others want to be financially secure. Regardless, the notion is consistent — when their requirements are affected, difficult decisions must be taken.

Due to their differing needs, parents may force their children to miss school since survival needs take precedence over self-actualisation.

Nonetheless, it’s apparent that low-income households are battling to maintain their living standards in order to keep up with the economic evolution and consumption of top-income earners, and as a result, they insist their children to work for the family rather than going to school.

Thus, continuing the endless loop of sustaining the family vs receiving formal and free education.

What Causes Learning Poverty and How We Can Help (1)

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Inequality and Biasness in Education

While there are many layers of poverty, there are still families that continue to send their children to school, despite working twice as hard, to provide the necessary resources because they believe their children can make a difference to their family's living conditions. Yet UNICEF estimates that roughly 17,000 children drop out annually in Malaysia. The math just doesn’t add up.

According to The Institute of Academic and Economic Affairs, weaker students aren’t receiving equal attention and guidance when learning in school. As a result, academic performance declines and motivation to work harder suffers. Yes, public institutions offer weaker classrooms where kids can get extra attention. The reality, however, is that most students are treated worse when they’re pushed to the final class due to a shortage of educational resources and educators to assist students and equip them with the essential and appropriate skills.

Children in the B40 community can only rely on public schools because they don’t have the luxury to attend extra classes or tuition when necessary. Their only source of knowledge is acquired from the educator and worn-out textbooks shared by six or more students. My issue is, why are our public schools not a reliable and sufficient source of learning and growth for students? Where would the less fortunate pupils go if they can’t obtain the attention and knowledge needed to improve?

The Connection Between Economic Inequality and Learning Poverty

We should never ignore the efforts placed by our nation to reduce learning poverty with efforts like the Poor Students’ Trust Fund (PSTF) to ease students’ financial burden and accessibilities. One wonders, though, did we really aid those in need of necessary resources to curb learning poverty?

Research conducted byThe Institute of Academic and Economic Affairsillustrates that roughly two-thirds of people polled were aware of the PSTF and only one-third of those who were aware of it applied for it. What’s even more shocking is that only 15% received those funds.

The data above indicates that the government's programmes aren’t necessarily directed at or made aware to the intended B40 community. Why? This could be because the scheme only assists people in absolute poverty as the requirement for applyingas a poor household is a combined household income of RM720. Even though over 60% of households are in relative poverty, they weren’t able to apply for these funds because of the set threshold.

There’s a bigger picture to observe as the evidence underscores the importance of spreading the availability of schooling facilities to all — regardless of the kinds of poverty one is in.

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Furthermore, in the present where everything is changing constantly and the world becomes more competitive, one would require a higher quality of education to be innovative and productive. Due to the inattentiveness towards education, this could potentially lead to youths missing out on job opportunities, rise in criminal activity, or even underage marriage. If this progresses, the B40 community may never be able to come out of the poverty cycle.

From an economical point of view, this would result in a less skilled labour force which lowers the economic growth of the nation. However, because learning poverty only affects a certain percentage of the nation, those equipped with educational resources would continue to thrive while individuals from the B40 community would be struggling to get their needs. In other words, the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and hence the wider the wage gap. Would this then become a barrier between us and our nation’s advancement?

Combating Learning Poverty Together

Though a systemic change may sound like something that needs to be addressed by higher authorities, we, as Malaysians, can also play our part in making smaller-scale but impactful steps too because change starts with us.

Starting an Equitable Change in Education

To make a change in the way things are, there first needs to be a shift in our mindset and the first thing that needs to be addressed is that we need to treat everyone equitably in education instead of equally. Meeting the specific needs of those around us and aiding them in those particular areas would help tremendously. How do we get started?

“Empathy is crucial in understanding the situation that people have been forced to live in. It’s important to engage with youth in empowering vulnerable and at-risk populations,” Hema explained. Perhaps a good start to treating others equitably is to be more aware and attentive of the situations that surrounds them by removing that rose-tinted and privileged lens.

Actionable Steps for Those in Need

Changing our beliefs and system takes time and a lot of effort. While you could be involved by donating any educational resources (reference books, worksheets, past year papers etc.) that you aren’t using anymore to the nearest public institutions or organisations such as BukuHub and The Salvation Army, would that be enough to address the immediate needs of the different unique communities? Not completely.

Education itself doesn’t require machines or tools to be taught, all we need is a book filled with knowledge and a passionate educator to aid.

Recently, Taylor’s University School of Education is playing its part throughProjek BacaBaca, a volunteer-based initiative to address and tackle learning poverty in Malaysia.

Hema shared, “We work with children from disadvantaged homes, not just those in the B40 households, to teach them reading so that they’re able to read at grade level. ThroughProjek BacaBaca, we hope to spread the love for reading among children in the hope that it’ll empower them to transform their lives… In the long run, teaching children reading and supporting them to read at grade level would provide for them the avenue to progress in school not only in English and Bahasa Melayu, but also in all other school subjects.”

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With initiatives and programmes like these, people of all ages would also be able to participate in making a purposeful change for those in need.

“I believe by showing young people the purpose of community engagement through activities likeProjek BacaBaca, it’d attract them to come onboard to work together in addressing many of the issues faced in the society,” Hema expressed.

When a nation ignores the reality of those in need, the consequences go beyond understanding household income and financial security. It creates a global predicament, leading towards brain drain. The problems mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg not only for those in the B40 community but also those from disadvantaged homes. Naturally, these difficulties could never be solved overnight which requires the rest of us to do what we can to the best of our ability. It’s time for us to give back — to see the change for our youth and for our nation.

Learn more about

Projek BacaBaca

and how you can be a part of the initiative



Ishaanaah Ravi is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Education at Taylor's University.She's also a member of the Taylor’s Leo Club and the Dia/Them Taylor’s Inclusivity Project. She enjoys reading, creative writing, and also relishes conducting volunteering work, believing that we make a living not by what we get, but by what we give.


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