Personal issues like substance abuse, mental illness, and ex-offender reentry fall directly within the purview of social service providers; however, success on these issues relies as much on the personal motivation of the client as it does on the skills of the social worker.
These areas rightfully take up the majority of focus for those who have dedicated their careers to ending poverty in America. Still, there is another leading factor which, in a country as rich and free as the United States, should not even be a consideration: Illiteracy.
According to the National Right to Read Foundation (NRRF), 42 million Americans are functionally illiterate; meaning they cannot read, write or perform simple math. Another 50 million Americans cannot read past the 4th grade level. It is also reported that 20% of high school seniors can be described as functionally illiterate at the time of graduation. In a country where public education is deemed the bedrock of a free society, these statistics are appalling.
In our country every child has the right to a free quality education. Unfortunately, the question of whether or not they actually receive a quality education is highly debatable. For years media, numerous think-tanks, and advocacy groups have tried to keep the nation focused on this scandalous failing of our country’s education system. Nonetheless, the impact of illiteracy on the health and welfare of U.S. as a whole bears repeating.
Illiteracy and its economic impact – Adult illiteracy costs society an estimated $240 billion each year in lost industrial productivity, unrealized tax revenues, welfare, crime, poverty, and related social ills.
Illiteracy and the workplace – According to the NALS, 40% 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.
Illiteracy and the criminal justice system – The rate of illiteracy in America’s correctional systems is over 60% (National Institutes of Health)
Solving America’s illiteracy problem at its root, within the primary education system, is the most effective way to alleviate many of the other complicating factors of poverty in general. Mayor Emanuel and the Illinois General Assembly are taking steps to increase the length of the school day, which is a good start. Unfortunately, improving the quality of public education will take the time and attention of all concerned citizens, and rightfully so. Providing a high quality education to our City’s (and our Country’s) youth would make many of the current social service and criminal justice programs unnecessary.
StreetWise Executive Director