Literacy: Why It Matters
[dropcap]S[/dropcap]eptember 8 is International Literacy Day. Literacy in its various forms (financial literacy, civic literacy, etc.) has always been a personal cause of mine. A few years ago, I served on the board of a local literacy organization, Literacy Action in Atlanta, Georgia. This great organization has as its mission “To build better futures for undereducated adults by teaching literacy, life and work skills that empower them to reach their highest potential.”
Our students were mostly those who had some schooling but had to abandon it at some point due to family obligations, illness, or some life-altering event. Their reasons for re-focusing on their education were varied: Some saw the economic potential, while others told us they simply wanted to be able to read bedtime stories to their grandchildren. Though the road to their personal success might have been full of challenges, they were driven to succeed and fortunate to have found an organization that would help them meet their goals.
Most of these individuals who sought our help were often categorized as “low literacy,” meaning, they had some education and could read or write on some elementary level. But both in the U.S. and among the rest of the global population, there are individuals who have virtually no literacy skills.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), nearly 1 in 5 adults on the planet cannot read or write. Of these adults classified as “illiterate,” two-thirds are women.
Worldwide, nearly 64 million children are not attending school because of conflict or oppressive regimes. Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai has become a globally-recognized face for education, especially for girls, after she was shot and seriously wounded by the Taliban in Pakistan. Her inspirational story is just one among the millions of young women being denied an education in regions of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
While international leaders say they are making some progress toward reducing these numbers, they admit are falling short of goals they set in 2000 in their Education for All initiative. And that is concerning, because global illiteracy carries some serious consequences for all of us.
Why does literacy matter?
High rates of literacy are associated with political stability. When individuals have the training and skills to maximize their potential, they can contribute to the well-being of their families, their society and their government. They are empowered to make sound political choices based on their research and vote in elections, as well as understand how they are governed and how they can affect change in peaceful ways.
Conversely, low literacy rates can be disastrous for a country’s stability. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon talks about the “enormous” political costs of illiteracy. He says, “Illiteracy exacerbates cycles of poverty, ill-health and deprivation. It weakens communities and undermines democratic processes through marginalization and exclusion. These and other impacts can combine to destabilize societies.”
High literacy rates benefit individuals, society and culture. Literacy is an empowering life skill. Women in one literacy program in Namibia said that they wanted to be able to write letters, deal with money and have some control over their lives so that they would “not be cheated.” Another study in Nicaragua demonstrated lower infant mortality deaths for mothers who received literacy training. Cultural benefits are difficult to measure, but experts point to the importance of literacy in promoting cultural diversity by preserving minority languages. It is through reading and writing that aspects of culture, including language, etiquette and customs, are passed to future generations.
High literacy rates benefit individuals and nations economically. It is widely accepted that for most individuals, the personal empowerment education offers extends to career and earning potential. The World Literacy Foundation says that illiterate individuals earn 30-42% less than their literate peers, and that the wages of illiterate persons are remain fairly stagnant throughout their lifetimes. Over time, the literate person can expect his or her income to increase with experience and additional learning.
Illiterate individuals, seeing no hope for the future and no improvement in their quality of life, may be marginalized and turn to crime. According to the Literacy Project Foundation, 3 out of 5 prisoners in the U.S. cannot read. Some states actually estimate future prison beds based on current reading levels among their elementary students. Illiteracy comes at high cost, even for developed nations, as the costs of incarceration and government assistance weigh heavy on budgets. Add to those costs the lost wages and tax revenue that could be contributed by these individuals if they were working at their maximum potential, and the economic losses are staggering. Globally, illiteracy costs all of us more than $1 Trillion.
Finally, literacy is a basic human right. Starting with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in succeeding international agreements, the international community has agreed that literacy “is both a right in itself and an instrument for achieving other rights.” Because it comes with so many benefits and the ability to improve one’s very quality of life, literacy is a vital skill to which all humans are entitled.
What you can do
Sometimes when we look at a global problem we wonder if one individual can make any impact. The answer is a resounding “yes.” Start with your own family and community and the rewards of literacy will extend far beyond the local.
Read to your kids and grandkids. Especially in this digital age, when everyone is plugged in, headphones on, reading aloud is one way to connect emotionally while enhancing literacy skills. You’ll inspire a love of reading in young ones you read to as well.
Volunteer and/or donate to local literacy efforts. Search online for local literacy organizations or, if you don’t know which ones might need help, VolunteerMatch.org is a great place to start. Go to the search area and enter “literacy” to see nearby organizations that focus on this cause.
Support your local library. Libraries provide equal access to information for all and promote literacy and learning. They are vital to their communities. You can support them by volunteering and donating to their fund-raising book sales.
Contact local and national leaders and tell them to support literacy programs. Legislators and their staffs do read the emails they receive about different causes. Let your voice be heard. Talk to them about the economic benefits of literacy training for the community as a whole: Improved literacy is a win-win for all.
All it takes is to hear the stories of individuals who have just learned to read to realize how empowering literacy is for them and all of us, not just on September 8, but for a lifetime.
The opinions stated here are solely those of Donna Krache.