I believe in the power of words. All my life, literature has been my solace. From novels by Roald Dahl and Beverly Cleary to the writings of Kurt Vonnegut, Virginia Woolf and Leo Tolstoy, my life has been deeply enriched by books. I’ve considered Ramona a pest, watched Billy Pilgrim encounter space and time with the Tralfamodorians, and asked when I would have a room of my own. I cannot describe all the many ways in which these and other writers have expanded my world. But I do know that I would not be who I am today were it not for the written word.
It is unfortunate then, that the simple pleasure of reading is out of reach for so many Americans. It is estimated that 93 million Americans possess inadequate literacy skills. That means that nearly one-third of Americans have trouble interpreting a bus schedule, reading a newspaper, and understanding their doctor’s prescription drug instructions. Many might believe this statistic a result of the country’s influx of immigrants, but 67% of those struggling with literacy are native speakers, and 50% are high school graduates.
Illiteracy hurts more than those who can’t read; it hurts everyone. Only 50% of Americans possess what is considered an adequate level of literacy to compete in today’s labor market. Across the nation, 43% of nonreaders live in poverty because they do not possess the necessary skills to obtain employment. It is estimated that illiteracy costs the United States $225 billion dollars in lost income and tax revenue, unemployment, welfare, crime, incarceration, and job training. 80% of juvenile delinquents have reading and writing difficulties. Over 70% of those incarcerated and 67% of women on public assistance possess the lowest levels of literacy. These are not coincidences, but real correlations that are not being addressed.
While much of the dialogue in education has centered on investing more in mathematics, science and engineering education for our students, we must not forget that so many adult Americans currently lack basic reading skills. Without these skills, they are less capable of supporting their families and raising successful children. According to the National Institute for Family Literacy, children of functionally illiterate parents are twice as likely to grow up functionally illiterate adults. The $580 million dollars allocated by the federal government for adult literacy and education programs serve only ten percent of those in need of services. And organizations that address adult literacy cannot keep up with the demand: it is estimated that 70% maintain waitlists.
I believe everyone has a right to literacy. So what can we do to help? First and most importantly, read to your children to help ensure their future academic success. Get involved in your local PTA to ensure that high school graduates are adequately prepared for today’s competitive job market. Contact your local public library and literacy organization to volunteer as a tutor or assist in other ways. And finally, write your lawmakers to tell them to support literacy measures. Together, we can give everyone the opportunity to experience the power of the written word.
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