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Illiteracy has long been viewed as a social and educational issue - someone else's problem. However, more recently we have come to understand economic consequences of lack of literacy skills for America and American business.
Illiteracy has a significant impact on economy. According to Nation's Business magazine, 15 million adults holding jobs today are functionally illiterate. The American Council of Life Insurance reports that three quarters of Fortune 500 companies provide some level of remedial training for their workers. And, a study done by Northeast Midwest Institute and The Center for Regional Policy found that business losses attribute to basic skill deficiencies run into hundreds of millions of dollars because of low productivity, errors and accidents.
In addition, as reported in 1986 publication entitled Making Literacy Programs Work: A Practical Guide for Correctional Educators (for U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections), one-half of all adults in federal and state correctional institutions cannot read or write at all. Only about one-third of those in prison have completed high school.
Evidence indicates that problem begins at home. A National Governors' Association Task Force on Adult Literacy reported that illiteracy is an inter-generational problem, following a parent-child pattern. Poor school achievement and dropping out before completing school are commonplace among children of illiterate parents.
The reasons for illiteracy are as varied as number of non-readers. The adult non-reader may have left school early, may have had a physical or emotional disability, may have had ineffectual teachers or simply may have been unready to learn at time reading instruction began.
Because they are unable to help their children learn, parents who can't read often perpetuate inter-generational cycle of illiteracy. Without books, newspapers or magazines in home and a parent who reads to serve as a role model, many children grow up with severe literacy deficiencies. Clearly, there is no single cause of illiteracy.
Adults have many reasons for requesting reading help. Many are prompted by need for increased levels of literacy in their jobs. Others may wish to read to a child, read Bible or write to a family member for first time. All express a hope for a better quality of life through higher levels of literacy.
According to Barbara Bush, "It suddenly occurred to me that every single thing I worry about – breakup of families, drugs, AIDS, homeless – everything would be better if more people could read, write and understand."
Let us all do what we can to make illiteracy not a part of story of American today but a part of America’s past.
Penni Wild is the Executive Director of New Jersey Reads. New Jersey Reads was established in 2002 by a group of literacy advocates dedicated to encouraging literacy among adults and children throughout the state. For more information about New Jersey Reads, visit www.newjerseyreads.org or call 609-394-5416.