Literacy has long been a connector that helps hold us together as a society. General health and key markers of social cohesion such as trust in others, feelings of political empowerment, and willingness to volunteer are closely tied to adult literacy, as are more direct economic indicators such as employment and earnings.
Unfortunately, the United States has lower levels of adult literacy than most advanced countries, and we continue to slip further behind. Our society’s growing income inequality is closely linked with our inequality of adult literacy. At every level of education, the less literate an American adult is, the greater the chances that he or she lives in poverty. If we are serious about improving economic well-being and addressing the gaping disparities our country faces, we need to develop and support adult educational programs that increase literacy and other basic skills An obvious response to these challenges would be focus on improving our K-12 schools and early childhood education programs. Although such reforms may eventually improve adult basic skills, they can’t have much impact in the short run, since most adults with weak basic skills – and most adults living in poverty – have already aged out of the K-12 school system. They need better basic skills and higher incomes now. In addition, increasing parental literacy skills and incomes will improve their children’s future educational outcomes.
Adult basic education programs can have a quicker impact. The recently enacted Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) includes support for adult basic skills programs as part of workforce development. Although basic skills programs can certainly help, unfortunately they are not adequately funded (for example, the basic skills grants to states in 2015 were 18 percent lower than in 2005 after adjusting for inflation).
Expanding funding for these programs will likely be quite cost effective. A recent study estimated that adults who went through these programs earned an average of about $10,000 more per year than they would have earned had they not gone through the programs.
A limitation of WIOA-funded basic skills programs, however, is their required connection to the workforce development system. Many of the 24 million unemployed or underemployed adults in poverty – and the 6 million full-time “working poor” – are not in a position to benefit from these programs. Some do not have the education or the minimal literacy skills required for entry into local career pathway programs. Others live in family or housing situations that must be stabilized before they can realistically participate in training or work. An additional 8 million adults who have serious disabilities or are retired seniors live in poverty but cannot access these programs because they are out of the workforce.
Innovative programs in both the public and nonprofit private sectors are exploring new ways to help adults, families, and communities move out of poverty. These include training and support for goal-setting, financial planning, “assertive engagement” in family stabilization, building “executive function” skills, family independence in economic development, and other innovations in life management. Improved basic skills will facilitate these important life management tasks that are so often needed to escape poverty and attain economic stability.
Basic skills instruction can be contextualized in these programs to help adults, including young adults who are not in school, address meaningful goals they set for themselves—whether those involve financial planning, personal and family health, care of elderly parents, or involvement in children’s education. Investments in basic skills programs will not only reduce poverty, they will return additional economic benefits including decreased health care costs and lower costs associated with crime and incarceration.
We must measure basic skills with more than just standardized test scores: we want to measure people’s use of text, numbers and diagrams – in printed and digital form – to gather, process, and communicate information in their important everyday activities. Basic skills development must be presented and delivered in a culturally responsive way that enhances individuals’ dignity and potential and builds on their strengths rather than labeling them as “basic skills deficient” (the unfortunate terminology still found in WIOA).
We need policies and programs that support lifelong and life-wide adult literacy in both workforce development and other important life contexts to build a more equitable society. To achieve this vital goal, federal, state, and local policymakers and advocates must pay systematic attention to broad-based needs for adult basic skills as they set funding priorities and develop initiatives to reduce poverty and increase economic opportunity.
Stephen Reder is professor emeritus of applied linguistics at Portland State University. He is a member of the Open Door Collective, the OECD Expert Group on Skill Use, and the board of the National Center for Adult Learning.
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