Investment in literacy also key to Detroit's future (Reading Works letter)

June 28th, 2015
Individuals work on their GED at Southwest Solutions' Adult Learning Lab

Southwest Solutions is partner in Reading Works, a collaborative initiative to improve adult literacy in metro Detroit. Recently, Paula Brown, executive director of Reading Works, published a letter in Crain’s Detroit about the societal costs of adult illiteracy and advocating for greater investment in adult literacy programs. It’s a compelling argument. Here is the letter in full from Paula:

I read Mary Kramer’s June 1 column “Detroit’s future is about more than money: jobs too” with great interest. She is right about the need for more workforce training programs. However, what always seems to be missing from this strategy is the piece that includes those with literacy skills (reading and math) too low to qualify for the training programs. In metro Detroit, the rate of low-literacy adults has been estimated from one in three to one in two. Our experience at Reading Works, through our nine literacy provider partner agencies, is that the truth probably lies somewhere between those numbers.

Most current workforce training programs require a high school diploma or GED. Strike one for low-skilled adults. In 2014, the GED test got a lot harder, adding six to 12 months onto the time it takes to prepare for the test. Strike two for low-literacy adults. Funding for adult basic education from the state is in jeopardy of being drastically cut or eliminated. Strike three, and they are out of the running for self-sustaining jobs. Even worse, they are disenfranchised from fully participating in Detroit’s renaissance. It’s not just about jobs. Millions of dollars are being allocated to early childhood, with little to none going toward building family literacy. Yet the best indicator of a child’s literacy level is the literacy level of the mother. How much more impact would those dollars have if they included teaching the child’s caregivers to read more proficiently? How much more would children achieve if they had a stable home provided by parents who qualify for jobs that pay a livable wage?

It’s also about health care costs. Adults who don’t yet read proficiently cannot effectively manage chronic health conditions (theirs or their children’s), read medicine instructions or follow health improvement plans that might include something as simple as cooking recipes. According to a study by Pfizer, 3 percent to 5 percent of the total health care costs across the country are due to poor literacy skills, translating into $75 billion to $125 billion a year.

And it’s not just a Detroit concern. Across the country, according to a 2013 study by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, one in six adults in the U.S. has low literacy skills. In Michigan, that number doubles to one in three. To compare, in Japan it is one in 20. Internationally, the U.S. is below average.

It’s not just buildings that have suffered from decades of neglect. Low-skilled adults are being turned away from workforce training programs and job fairs, yet they have 10, 20, 30 years left to participate in the workforce. They are unable to help their children achieve beyond the poor educational choices offered to them.

They need our investment, both time and money, from Washington to Lansing to the metro Detroit region to build necessary skills and be included in our region’s economic recovery. More importantly, we need them to help build our families and our community.

Paula Brown
Executive director, Reading Works, Detroit

June 28, 2015

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