By Cindy Cates
WARSAW – The World Literacy Foundation estimates the cost of illiteracy to be $1.19 trillion to the annual global economy.
Illiteracy limits peoles’ lives by creating an array of problems including poverty, unemployment, social exclusion, crime, and poor health. Worldwide, 750 million adults (two-thirds of whom are women) struggle with illiteracy or functional illiteracy. Functional illiteracy means a person may have basic reading and writing skills, (an understanding of simple words) and numeracy knowledge but cannot apply these skills to accomplish common tasks necessary and to make informed choices. These people cannot read medicine labels, read workplace correspondence, balance a checkbook, or complete a job application. Poor literacy limits the adults’ involvement in daily activities from helping their children with homework to not understanding governmental policies.
Because two billion adults worldwide do not have the essential literacy skills that employers need, positions remain vacant slowing economic growth. People with poor literacy skills are more than twice as likely to be unemployed. If employed, low-literacy adults earn 30-42% less than their literate counterparts earn and often lack the skills for vocational training. These employees are prone to work-related accidents because of the inability to read written health and safety regulations, placing themselves and co-workers at risk. These risks lead to higher medical service costs, absenteeism, and loss of productivity.
Literate people have better preventive health measures, including proper hygiene, vaccinations, regular healthcare provider visits, and better nutrition. In developed countries, illiterate adults rely on emergency room care as their primary health care provider. By not seeking preventative care, these adults tend to have diseases in advanced stages. In developing countries, a child born to a literate mother is 50% more likely to survive past age five. Studies have shown the mother´s literacy level is closely related to child health and survival. Literacy significantly enhances a person’s ability to access, understand, and apply health information to make accurate decisions.
Illiteracy is unquestionably linked with crime. Nearly 85% of juvenile delinquents are functionally illiterate. Internationally, 60-80% of prisoners have below basic reading skills. Societies are taxed with the cost of maintaining prisons and administering the court and justice systems.
Literate people are less likely to be on welfare. High school dropouts are more than three times as likely to be on welfare than graduates. Illiterate parents tend to have lower educational expectations for themselves and their children. About 258 million children and youth are not enrolled in school. Six out of ten children and adolescents are not performing at a minimum level in reading and math skills. In addition, if parents are not involved in their children’s education, students are more likely to have behavior problems, poor grades, and greater absenteeism. These children may drop out, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and illiteracy.
The effects of illiteracy in developed countries are very similar to the problems in developing countries. Illiterate people are in a cycle of poverty with limited opportunities for employment. Therefore, they are more likely to have poor health, may turn to crime, and may rely on social welfare and charity. Improving literacy skills is a key first step to overcoming the obstacles that lock people in poverty. The World Literacy Foundation recommends a two-pronged approach: first, encouraging families to place a higher value on education and second, enrolling illiterate adults in literacy programs. Adult literacy programs, especially those including job-searching skills, can be successful in reducing or eliminating dependence on welfare.
Locally, Kosciusko Literacy Services provides monthly books to preschoolers living in the county’s poorest families and literacy classes and tutors for adults. The Kosciusko Literacy Services annual campaign to improve literacy is underway.
Donate by mail (P.O. Box 796, Warsaw, IN 46581-0796), or online at www.kcread.org. Call 574-267-5380 for more information.
Cindy Cates is the executive director with Kosciusko Literacy Services.