More Than a Third of Adults Are Illiterate in Many Cities. What Do We Do?

A new study in Detroit, where 47 percent are illiterate, digs into solutions.

By Thoai Lu May 17, 2011

Back in 1998, a study conducted by the National Institute for Literacy released statistics that shocked much of the nation: 47 percent of adults in Detroit were considered functionally illiterate, meaning that they lacked basic reading and writing skills to manage ordinary, everyday tasks. But Detroit wasn’t alone. In cities across the country, adult illiteracy was proven to be stunningly high: 36 percent in New York City; 37 percent in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Chicago; and 38 percent in Cleveland.

Yet in Detroit, the ramifications seemed slightly different. It was a city that was home to the country’s most rapid industrial decline, and a place where America’s deepest social, economic and racial inequalities seemed to show themselves with full force. The devastating rate of illiteracy meant that 200,000 adults weren’t able to read a newspaper, fill out a job application, or read instructions on a medicine bottle. Even more jarring was the fact that half of these functionally illiterate adults held high school diplomas or GED’s.

This spring, the Detroit Regional Workforce Fund released a follow-up study to see how those functionally illiterate adults were able to access basic skill services. Using the 1998 figures as a starting point, the goal was to shift local policies to ensure that the city’s neediest residents had access to programs that could make them better equipped to eventually enter a workforce. While the city’s public education system has recently become the focus of national scrutiny, researchers noted that their target group was the adults who had already finished school and needed practical interventions. Some participants joined Detroit’s Literacy Labs, which were designed especially for adult learners.

Colorlines spoke to Leise Rosman, a policy associate at Corporation for a Skilled Work Force about the challenges faced by the study’s participants, and their hopes for change. Pointing to other cities’ similarly dismal literacy rates, Rosman noted that the "skills issue is real in all of those urban centers."

On factors that contribute to literacy rates:

Folks with limited literacy were really able to do quite well as wage-earning adults. Not everyone who is in this category of having a literacy challenge is permanently unemployed, there are a lot of people in that bucket who have had good jobs for a long time and supported families, who have bought homes, who have been contributing community members their whole lives. Now, our primary industries are moving more toward a knowledge economy.

How to tackle the problem?

Given the scale, there’s no way that one person or one foundation or one community-based organization can possibly do this alone. The big things are making sure that there is awareness about the scale of this issue and making sure it’s not seen as a niche issue that isn’t relevant to all of the citizens in and around the city, because the rates are similarly high in the suburban areas also.

I’ve read several articles about the report that sort of point at, "See, it’s all because of our schools." Rather than try to identify the source of the issue, at this point, given that we have so many adults who are beyond any kind of intervention, trying to really look at how we can help them move forward is where I would prefer to see our time and dialogue as a region…

Adult literacy issues generally have a bit of a stigma to them, so they don’t get talked about very often. Learners often aren’t advocates in this arena because it’s not viewed as a positive thing to have low literacy or to be unemployed because of low literacy.

On the 25,000 learners that the 10 literacy labs would aid:

That actually only gets you a small increment toward the actual need, it’s an impressive opportunity, but it’s still a drop in the bucket compared to the dramatic scale of need.  A little over one percent… and that’s one of the largest scale initiatives that has happened in Detroit around literacy, are those labs.