The adult literacy problem

April 19, 1999|By Elizabeth Holden

TO GET a job as a cook or a mechanic, a person, generally, needs to read at an eighth-grade level. A ninth-grade reading level is required to comprehend a guide to Social Security benefits.

With an estimated 36 percent of Baltimore's adult population in need of basic literacy skill development, according to the federal National Institute for Literacy in Washington, the ramifications for welfare reform are profound.

The welfare connection

Of course, there's a definite link between literacy and welfare. The lower you are on the literacy scale the more likely you are to be on welfare.

A welfare recipient has a 97-to-1 chance of finding a job paying a "living wage" -- which provides an income above the poverty line. Those odds are even worse for welfare recipients with the lowest literacy skills. Most jobs that pay more than minimum wage require high-school-level skills.

Nationally, three out of four food stamp recipients perform in the lowest two literacy levels, according to the federal National Adult Literacy Survey of 1993; that means they would have trouble locating an intersection on a map or reading many government pamphlets. Welfare recipients between the ages of 17 and 21 scored at the sixth-grade level.

For many Baltimoreans, poor literacy skills are a serious obstacle to getting and keeping a job.

If a sixth-grade reading level is necessary to read a driver's education manual, imagine the level needed to decipher letters from the Department of Social Services.

Failure to reapply or to complete determination forms accounts for 17.6 percent of Maryland's closed welfare caseload, according to a 1997 report by University of Maryland researcher Catherine Born, as compared with 11.2 percent who exited due to finding work. How many of these welfare recipients were inadvertently dropped from the welfare rolls because their poor reading skills didn't serve them in negotiating the changing world of welfare benefits?

More opportunities for people to develop literacy skills are necessary if welfare reform is to ensure that those who leave the welfare rolls are doing so with full access to information and with real hope of finding a living wage job.

Key challenges for adult literacy programs are to provide flexible program hours and an intensity of instruction that can be tailored to the realities of the learners' work schedules.

The state needs to make improving adult literacy a priority. Maryland ranks 36th among the 50 states in adult literacy rates. Among urban areas, only four have worse literacy rates than Baltimore -- Detroit, the Bronx, N.Y., Miami and Trenton, N.J.

As the cost of welfare decreases, more government funds should be designated for adult education to ensure that adults are developing skills to become successful in the work force.

A society is only as strong as its weakest members. We all benefit from the ability of those on the margins of society to succeed in the work force and to support their families.

Before welfare reform can be deemed a success or failure, the debate and analysis must reflect an understanding of adult literacy issues.

If we hold people accountable for self-sufficiency, we need to ensure that they possess the skills needed to be successful.

Elizabeth Holden is director of the Greater Homewood Adult Literacy Program. To inquire about becoming a tutor there, call 410-889-7927.

Pub Date: 4/19/99

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