Illiteracy Rate Part of a Bigger Picture

March 21st, 2007 Print Print Email Email


March 20, 2007

One of yesterday’s major stories was the release of a new study indicating that about one-third of adults in Washington, D.C. are functionally illiterate. Wikipedia actually has a decent definition of functional illiteracy: “the inability of an individual to use reading, writing, and computational skills efficiently in everyday life situations.” In other words, a person may be able to read somewhat, but nowhere near well enough to hold down a job. The reality of the District’s functional illiteracy rate compares with a figure of about one-fifth nationally, and is, therefore, plainly grim.
We’ve heard a range of reactions to the news. Some readers have written to express their shock, others to shout about their continued frustration with the state of the District, and still others to share their initial reaction to the report as almost funny. And while obviously a literacy problem of this magnitude is no laughing matter, you can see how someone without much personal knowledge of D.C. as a whole could read some irony into the statistic: Overall, Washington remains one of the most highly educated cities in the nation, with 39 percent of adults holding a bachelor’s degree.

Of course, the story behind such seemingly contradictory statistics is an old one, rooted in dramatic racial differences. We all already know that white households typically have incomes nearly twice that of black or Hispanic families in D.C., and that the vast majority of the college degree holders in this city are white. We can already guess that recent Central American and Ethiopian immigrants, who have yet to gain proficiency in English, are contributing to the illiteracy rate. And we can already recite the cliché about Washington being “two cities,” separated by both race and economic class.

But just because we already know there are serious problems in the District doesn’t mean we shouldn’t rightfully be taken aback by this report, or deeply concerned about its larger implications. The State of Adult Literacy Report indicates local and federal money for literacy programs is being misallocated across D.C.’s wards and not reaching those who need help. Mayor Williams began a $4 million adult literacy campaign in 2003, which produced this report, and now Mayor Fenty will have to deal with the enormity of the problem, which must include overhauling how and in which wards literacy aid reaches the city’s adults.

If we’re committed to making this city work for people of all incomes and backgrounds, then it’s imperative that we tackle our literacy problem. The D.C. Chamber of Commerce said up to $107 million is being lost in tax revenue each year because of a lack of qualified job applicants. All the other goals associated with ensuring there is any room at all for a middle class in the District — redevelopment, affordable housing, smart growth — none of it can possibly matter if we have to import workers from outside our borders. An illiterate adult population is an excellent way to ensure a permanent underclass in the District. This report should be a wake-up call.

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