Why Read? Reason #8. America, We Have a Literacy Problem.

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Yes, we have a serious literacy problem and it'll get worse if we don't help our citizens become literate.

Our economy, our society, our very democracy depends on an educated workforce. Basic skills are critical to the prosperity and wellbeing of individuals and are key drivers of economic growth and societal advancement. But today, adults in the U.S. score well below the international average in the foundational skills considered most critical for our global competitiveness and economic strength: math, reading and problem-solving. A 2013 study by the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies discovered that 1 in 6 adults have low literacy skills and nearly one-third have weak numeracy and problem solving skills.

Employers often struggle to fill jobs requiring basic skills while literacy funding is at an all-time low. In California, more than half of all adults are not proficient readers and 6,151,072 (almost 1 in 5) have not earned a high school diploma or its equivalent. The costs to society are immense. That’s the bad news.

What’s the good news? Becoming literate for life is not costly and the results are tangible.

Take Enrique, an adult with low literacy skills who was living in the Bay Area with few prospects to find a well-paying job to support his family. Then he stumbled upon a library literacy program that gave him the fundamentals to increase his workplace skills, which helped him to secure a job with a national airline. “When you go into a literacy program, you come out reading. You come out literate. And you never go back,” he says.

Enrique was lucky. The number of out-of-school adults needing help in Sonoma County is considerable. But our adult education services and programs are grossly underfunded and can’t hope to serve everyone in need. Every adult school program in the county, with the exception of Petaluma, has closed in recent years. Library literacy programs can’t meet the demand and Santa Rosa Junior College and other non-profits are trying to fill the gap but waiting lists are long.

If we do nothing, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said, "No matter how hard they work, these adults will be stuck, unable to support their families and contribute fully to our country."

Why should you care? Because we all benefit from an educated society.

On an economic level, the return on investment is huge. A literate workforce attracts more business resulting in higher salaries, enhanced job security, greater productivity, increased consumer spending and tax revenues, reduced correctional costs, and a decreased drain on social services. Literacy is the most basic employable skill, the essential element of economic development and living-wage jobs.

On a personal level, parents are better able to support their children’s education and nurture healthier citizens. When adults gain the power to read and write it is nothing short of transformational – resulting in healthier and, yes, happier communities.

To help address the need in Sonoma, we are launching The Literacyworks Center to provide more basic and workplace skills programs. The Center, partnering with the Santa Rosa Junior College on its Petaluma Campus, will work with underserved basic skills learners to address the educational and logistical issues they must manage to stay in school and succeed in work. The Center will act as a liaison between education programs and monitor each learner’s progress, helping them to complete their educational goals.

How can you help?

Help fund a hero! Support the new Literacyworks Center at SRJC by giving a donation to help administer The Center. Go to Literacyworks.org and click the “Donate” button.

Volunteer! Our local libraries and literacy programs need more tutors.


This Op-Ed appeared in the Press Democrat on November 2, 2014. Written by Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey and Paul Heavenridge, it was modified for this blog. Lynn Woolsey is a retired member of the U.S. House of Representatives where she sat on Education and Labor Committees during her 20-year tenure. Paul Heavenridge is Executive Director of Literacyworks. To find out more about the Literacyworks Center, visit Literacyworkscenter.org


As I was waiting in line for lunch one day the Zen Buddhist in front of me said to the hotdog vendor: "Make me one with everything."

Then woman standing next to me said she recognized me from the vegetarian club, but I’d never met herbivore.

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