August 8, 2008

Adult Illiteracy in DC

The Consequence of Poor Public Schools.

by Elizabeth Borges, Advocacy Assistant.

If you want evidence that DC schools are failing, look no further than the city’s sky-high adult illiteracy rates. According to the Washington Post, the District released a State of Adult Literacy Report in 2007 that found that about 36% of the city’s adult residents are functionally illiterate (which means that they cannot do simple tasks such as fill out a job application or read a newspaper). This number is especially striking when compared to the national adult illiteracy rate, which is 21% (and still way too high by any consideration).

In addition to examining adult illiteracy citywide, the report studied the rate of adult illiteracy in individual wards. Not surprisingly, Wards 7 and 8, which have the highest incidences of poverty, also have the highest illiteracy rates. The report found that Wards 7 and 8 have illiteracy rates of 50.4% and 48.9%, respectively, while the more affluent Ward 3 has a rate of only 8.2%. These statistics are further proof of the powerful link between poverty and poor education.

Indeed, with regards to finances, it’s no secret that illiterate adults make far less than their literate counterparts. But in addition to harming the individual, adult illiteracy also hurts the fiscal health of society as a whole. In fact, the report found that adult illiteracy cost the District $107 million in taxes each year between 2000 and 2005 because of a lack of qualified job applicants. (This number is so high due to the fact that 47% of jobs in DC require a college or other advanced degree, compared to only 26% nationally.) In this case, society loses not only money, but also the potential contributions of these individuals to both the academic and professional worlds.

Even more troubling, the resources to combat this problem are dispersed unequally throughout the city. Despite their dire adult illiteracy rates, Wards 7 and 8 do not receive the most resources. Instead, the majority of federal and local adult literacy programs are operated in Wards 1 and 4. To be fair, these wards have high illiteracy rates of their own (about 42 percent). But Wards 7 and 8 also need these programs, and they need them badly. Clearly, the governmental programs are not sufficient to address the needs of city residents.

Thankfully, there are some non-profits in DC working to decrease the number of illiterate adults. DC Learns, a coalition of literacy organizations, takes a two-pronged approach to the problem. The coalition runs programs that support adult education and teach basic reading skills to children, and also investigates DC policy concerning adult education. Unfortunately, in a recent report, DC Learns found that the government will decrease the FY 2009 budget for the Office of the Superintendent, which provides most of the funding for DC’s adult education programs. It is unclear whether other governmental funds will make up for this decrease.

Of course, the real goal should be to make adult literacy programs unnecessary – all children should graduate high school with the ability to read and write at a proficient level. But until this goal is realized, the government should allocate adequate funding to adult education programs to compensate for the poor education that these adults received years ago. Hopefully the city will find some way to more fully fund its OSSE programs.

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