Low literacy rates for adults can have wide-ranging effects on those around them. They may rely more heavily on government services; their children may not get that extra hand with schoolwork; their families may not get sufficient financial support.
But for the millions of adults with low literacy, the ability to read, write and speak English might offer them the most important opportunity of all: a chance to emerge from the shadows and participate as equals in society.
People who struggle to read, write and speak English are sentenced to a lifetime of economic challenges, says Stephen Fuller, an economist with George Mason University in Virginia. He says it’s important to have an educated workforce as it otherwise has enormous costs for society. People with low literacy are more likely to need unemployment checks, food stamps and subsidized housing. And they are more likely to end up behind bars.
“We find that about half the people that come to prison didn’t finish high school,” says Stephen Steurer, executive director of the advocacy group Correctional Education Association. Research shows that inmates enrolled in education programs while incarcerated were far less likely to return to prison.
Some researchers have estimated the cost of low health literacy is at least $100 billion each year.
Experts say if the U.S. invested in adult education, these costs to society could be reduced. Instead, they say, cuts are happening, which is worsening the situation.
Improving literacy rates would not only make for a safer and more prosperous country, but also a healthier one. Alis Marachelian, who runs the health education program at Mary’s Center in the district says the barrier between caregivers and patients who lack basic literacy is a huge problem. “We use illustrations for medicines — we would draw the sun and the moon as to when to take the medicine,” she says. “Sometimes we help them put it in the pill boxes because they can’t count either.”
For those adults who do manage to go back to school, improved literacy skills can change their lives.
Parents who are literate are more likely to be involved in their child’s schoolwork. And research shows this in turn results in higher test scores, better attendance and improved graduation rates.
Anthony Tassi, executive director of Literacy Partners, says educating adults has a multiplier effect.
“By focusing on parents, you can at once help cure the problem today and also prevent it long term,” he says, “because as you enhance parents’ skills, they will automatically transfer those skills to their children. You don’t need to do anything extra.”
Adult education can also be the difference between wasted potential and a world of possibilities.
Matthew Burke graduated from high school even though he was reading at about the third-grade level. He got a job as a welder but found his lack of reading skills held him back. He couldn’t read notes left for him, while his colleagues couldn’t read or understand his notes. Since learning to read, Burke says, his life has changed. He no longer avoids looking at equipment manuals, and now he’s enrolled in a community college blueprint class. When he completes that in a few months, Burke says his salary will increase 20 percent, and he’ll have other job opportunities. (Image via Shutterstock)