The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

David Knepper

October 27, 2013

David Knepper | Illiteracy – the downfall of American society

JOHNSTOWN — To put it mildly, last week was the final straw for most Americans who openly expressed contempt for a Congress that seemingly had forgotten that we are a “government for the people, by the people and of the people.” Voters were especially fed up with Washington politicians and both political parties.

According to a recent Tribune-Democrat survey to the question that given the extended government shutdown and debt-ceiling fight, 75 percent of respondents indicated that they would not vote for the incumbent in their congressional district – a warning for incumbents of all political stripes going into the next year’s midterm election.

In the meantime, to chase away my blues, I am going to make a resolution to visit more often the great local public library system that we have here in Cambria County.

American’s love affair with fictional reading is slightly more than a flicker, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. Its findings found that in 2012, just 47 percent of Americans read fiction. The Pew Research Center has also unveiled its stats on the United States’ reading habits in 2012, revealing that 75 percent of 16-year-old Americans read only one book that year, which included printed books, audio books and e-books, an increasingly popular medium. But, we can do better – or should I say, I can do better.

Most people think of literacy as a simple question of being able to read. But while a young child who can work her way through a basic picture book is considered to have age-appropriate literacy levels, an adult who can only read at the most fundamental level is still functionally illiterate. The world requires that adults not only be able to read and understand basic texts, but also be able to function in the workplace, pay bills, understand legal and financial documents and navigate technology – not to mention the advanced reading comprehension skills required to pursue postsecondary education and the opportunities that come with it.

As a result, when we talk about the effects of illiteracy on society, we’re talking primarily about what happens when you have a large number of adults whose literacy skills are too low to perform normal, day-to-day tasks. However, it is worth keeping in mind that childhood illiteracy is, of course, directly correlated to adult illiteracy.

More alarming are the statistics released recently by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy showing that some 32 million U.S. adults can’t read. That’s 14 percent of the population or 21 percent of adults in the U.S. who read below a fifth-grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates can’t read at all.

Alarmingly, that means they can’t read a newspaper or the instructions on a bottle of pills, let alone a book. As many as 23 percent of the adult American population (40-44 million) is functionally illiterate (Level 1 according to the National Adult Literacy Survey), lacking basic skills beyond a fourth-grade level.  

“Illiteracy is widespread, a problem in every community, not limited to any race, region or socioeconomic class,” according to the NALS.

By some reports, adult illiteracy costs society an estimated $240 billion each year in lost industrial productivity, unrealized tax revenues, welfare, crime, poverty and related social ills. We can do better.

Adults with low-level reading skills frequently suffer from health problems because they lack the ability to read medical directions, health-related literature or prescription labels. Chronic health conditions may go improperly monitored by patients who are functionally illiterate and the overall well-being of these individuals may worsen over time, causing frequent doctor or emergency room visits, hospitalization, or even death. We can do better.

According to the National Adult Literacy Survey, 40 percent of the labor force in the United States has limited skills. American businesses lose more than $60 billion in productivity each year to employee’s lack of basic skills. We can do better.

The rate of illiteracy in America’s correctional systems is over 60 percent (National Institutes of Health). According to the Department of Justice, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence and crime is welded to reading failure.” The stats back up this claim: 85 percent of all juveniles who interface with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate, and over 70 percent of inmates in America’s prisons cannot read above a fourth-grade level. We can do better.

The saddest casualties of illiteracy in America are the children who are affected by intergenerational illiteracy. Children of disadvantaged parents begin their school life behind their peers. Parents with minimal or no reading skills often cannot provide the kind of support their children need to do well in school. We can do better.

Although illiteracy seems like an overwhelming problem, there are many things that individuals can do to help. You can help prevent illiteracy by becoming a tutor at a nearby school or going to a poor neighborhood and offering literacy support at a local school or community center. You can also help adults overcome literacy challenges by volunteering at an adult basic education center where you can teach adults to read and help them with basic life skills. Or it could be even something as simple as reading to your children or grandchildren.

Rather than purchasing iPads, consider purchasing a Kindle, an electronic book that allows the user to download electronic books, or eBooks, and read them anywhere.  

The next time you see me, look to see if I have a paperback in my back pocket – no it won’t be “Catcher in the Rye.”

David A. Knepper currently is executive director of the Forest Hills Regional Alliance. He holds a doctorate in educational administration from Penn State. His column appears monthly in the Sunday edition.


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Tackling the area's drug problem.
Controlling folks moving into city housing.
Monitoring folks in treatment centers and halfway houses.
Tougher sentencing by the court system.
More police on the streets.

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