In a continuation of the Campbell Conversations’ series on poverty, this interview focuses on adult literacy. Peter Waite is the executive vice president of ProLiteracy, an international literacy organization in Syracuse. Marsha Tait is executive director of Literacy CNY, a local literacy organization offering services and expertise. Both have headed the National Coalition for Literacy.
Grant Reeher (GR): How prevalent is the literacy problem?
Peter Waite (PW): We’re just coming off a major international study on adult literacy worldwide, the PX Study sponsored by the (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), and it reiterated previous studies which indicated that we have a very major problem here in the United States. We have a particularly bad problem relative to other developed countries in the world. What that translates into is that around 35 million individuals have serious sub-standard basic skills. We’re not talking about someone who can’t read enough to go to a men’s room or women’s room. What we are talking about are people who can’t figure out basic job applications, who can’t understand basic medical information and who are seriously sub-standard relative in terms of their interaction with jobs, with family, with others.
Marsha Tait (MT): If we take the findings from the PX study and apply them to the adult population in Onondaga County, we come up with about 60,000 adults who have extremely limited literacy skills or extremely limited English language skills.
GR: How much of this is an immigration-related issue? What are the literacy problems for people who are born in this country and who are native English speakers?
MT: For the population that Literacy CNY serves, about half are English language learners — immigrants and refugees who have come to live in this community — and the other half are basic speakers of English — people who are born here, went to school here, may or may not have graduated from high school, but did not acquire the literacy skills that they need.
GR: Marsha, how do people get to you? Do you have to go out in the community and convince people to receive your services?
MT: We don’t have to do any student recruitment at all. We have a waiting list that averages at least 100 people. We are located in the SUNY Syracuse Educational Opportunity Center, on Solano Street. Many of our students come into the EOC and don’t meet the entrance requirements, and are referred to our offices. Aside from that, we receive referrals from other adult education agencies in the community, from human service organizations and through word of mouth.
GR: If those are the mechanisms for getting people in, it would seem that there might be people who are even worse off who are not going to have the information to come to you. What happens to them?
MT: We serve students who are reading at a zero to sixth-grade level, the lowest level of students in our community. Certainly there are people who are not aware of the resources that are available in our community. All combined, all the adult ed programs, we are serving less than 10 percent of that 60,000 number I gave you. There certainly are people out there who are not coming in or who are afraid. It can be terribly intimidating as an adult to come back into an educational setting if you were unsuccessful as a child in school.
PW: We need to have individuals recognize that it is OK to come out and seek help. Unfortunately, for many individuals, particularly born here in the U.S., there is a sense that they read and they write OK for where they are. And that is often a function of a cycle of poverty and a cycle of community that says, if I’m reading at an eighth-grade level, that’s really going to be OK. But it’s not OK. And if they want to get out of that particular cycle of poverty, they want to improve themselves, they are going to have to increase that significantly.
GR: So you’ve got problems on both ends. You’ve got people who think that they are doing better than they are doing, and then the ones who are experiencing the shame that must exist for this. What have you learned about dealing with that?
MT: The students who actually come to us are highly motivated. They have figured out that in their lives they need better skills. And so we don’t really see very often someone who walks through our door who thinks he or she is OK. They already have realized that there is a problem and they need to take steps to address it. But in terms of that sense of shame, absolutely. We see it all the time. People come through our door at Literacy CNY and you can tell just by manner and by tone that they have been abused, that people have taken advantaged of them, that they are made to feel stupid and undesirable. So part of what we do in our agency is work very hard to treat everybody who comes through our door with human dignity and respect, whether they stay with the program and meet their goals or not. And that I think is one of the most important things we do for this population.
GR: What are the biggest myths in this country about literacy and low literacy?
MT: I think the biggest myth, first of all, is that the problem doesn’t exist here because we spend so much money on K-12 or P-16, or however you want to refer to it. We’re a very wealthy country, and we do spend lots of money on education. The second biggest myth is that people don’t acquire these skills because they are lazy or they are not interested. There are lots of reasons why people don’t acquire literacy or English language skills growing up.
GR: What is the role that literacy and low literacy play in people’s struggles with poverty?
PW: It’s critical to make those kinds of connections. The problem of adults reading at a low level is not a problem unto itself. This issue is not about reading and writing, this issue is specifically about poverty, about health care, about employment and about social justice. It’s individuals who are poor who have the lowest educational levels, who have the lowest literacy rates, who have the worst health care, who have the poorest jobs and have the worst unemployment rates.
MT: In today’s economy, getting a job with a living wage is very difficult to do if you have extremely limited literacy skills. Most minimum wage jobs today require a high school equivalency or a high school diploma. That’s a big motivator for people who come to us, that they want a job or a better job. But there are lots of other motivations, as well, everything from helping my children to succeed in school to creating and managing a household budget. As Peter mentioned, health issues are huge in this population, because the health care system is extremely complicated in the United States, and if I have a health issue, I may not be getting the care I need. I may not be following health care instructions or protocols correctly.
GR: ProLiteracy’s website says that low literacy adds $230 billion to the country’s health care costs. Could you explain that?
PW: That may even be low. When you have individuals who are not able to access and utilize existing medical facilities, they are going to utilize emergency rooms. They are going to utilize high, expensive medical services more than individuals who are engaged in their own medical care and medical work. Just taking advantage of pre-natal work, of pre-natal opportunities. If we can get in front of that, if we can get people the kind of education that will allow them to be able to take advantage of preventive care, we will save probably well beyond $230 billion.
GR: What have each of you learned from your work in the literacy field that has most surprised you about problems of literacy?
MT: I have worked both locally and nationally, and I also did some work at the state level. The thing that is the most surprising is that as a policy matter, literacy hasn’t caught on. The research is ample that low literacy is correlated with a number of challenges in our society. We can’t somehow get the political will behind it to invest more, to do more and to help more people. If we start with the adults at the lowest level of skill and gave them more opportunities to improve their skill, we could address all kinds of issues in this community.
PW: I think in the 35 years that I’ve been engaged in (literacy), I continue to be astonished that we have a situation where this problem is America’s most solvable problem. In a time when we have problems that seem insolvable, this is one that we can solve. We have the resources, we have the technique, we have the knowledge, and we can solve it. I just remain astonished that we haven’t been able to galvanize enough resources, enough commitment, to really solve this problem.
Every week Grant Reeher, Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, leads a conversation with a notable guest. Guests include people from central New York – writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals whose work affects the public life of the community – as well as nationally-prominent figures visiting the region to talk about their work.
Grant Reeher hosts WRVO Public Media’s program “The Campbell Conversations” at 6 p.m. Sundays at 89.9 and 90.3.