Adding Up The Cost Of Low Literacy Among Adults

Nov 4, 2013

For the past few days, NPR has been taking a look at the challenges facing the 30 million American adults who lack basic literacy skills.

In the final part of our series on adult education, Kavitha Cardoza of member station WAMU examines the economic and social impacts — not just on individuals, but on society as a whole.

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Over the past few days, NPR has been taking a look at the challenges facing the 30 million American adults who lack basic literacy skills. In the final part of this series on adult education, we examine the economic and social impacts - not just on people, but society as a whole. Here's Kavitha Cardoza from WAMU in Washington, D.C.

KAVITHA CARDOZA, BYLINE: Claudine Edwards had a baby at 13 and dropped out of school. She's been unemployed for five years since she lost her job as a cleaner. Edwards relies on food stamps, and her daughter pays her rent. Now she's 53, and has come to Academy of Hope, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., to ask about classes in basic reading and math.

CATHY WALSH: So, the last thing is fees, and it's $30 per term.

CARDOZA: She tenses when Cathy Walsh, a staff member, brings up money.

CLAUDINE EDWARDS: Can I bring the card to him next Monday?

WALSH: Yeah. Yeah. And actually, you don't have to pay all at once.


WALSH: So, if you want to pay $10 at a time, that's fine.

CARDOZA: For Edwards and millions of others, the decision to drop out of school may have seemed easy, but the path after that is hard, a lifetime of dreams that lie just out of reach. It means a promotion lost, a business not started, a bedtime story never read. People who struggle to read, write and speak English are sentenced to a lifetime of economic challenges, says Stephen Fuller, an economist with George Mason University in Virginia. He says it's important to have an educated workforce.

STEPHEN FULLER: If we fail, it's a double expense, because the economy isn't healthy, and we also have increased social services.

CARDOZA: Fuller says that has enormous costs for society. People with low literacy are more likely to need unemployment checks, food stamps and subsidized housing. And they're more likely to end up behind bars.

STEPHEN STEURER: We find that about half of the people who come to prison didn't finish high school.

CARDOZA: That's Stephen Steurer, who heads the Correctional Education Association, an advocacy group for educators in jails and prisons. Research shows inmates enrolled in education programs while incarcerated were far less likely to return to prison. Steurer says the majority of inmates will eventually be released, so funding educational programs should be common sense.

STEURER: It's public safety, baby, you know? It's not a hard sell to tell congressmen that education reduces crime. But who wants to make the choice, we got to build another grade school, or we're going to build a prison school?

CARDOZA: Improving literacy rates would not only make for a safer and more prosperous country, but also a healthier one. Alis Marachelian runs the health education program at Mary's Center in the Washington, D.C. She says the barrier between caregivers and patients who lack basic literacy is a huge problem.

ALIS MARACHELIAN: We use illustrations for medicines. We would draw the sun and the moon as to when to take the medicine. Sometimes we help them put it in the pill boxes, because they can't count, either.

CARDOZA: For some common conditions, such as diabetes, Marachelian says the least compliant patients are the ones with low literacy. It's not that they resist taking medication. They don't understand a wrong dose could be fatal. Leslie Kronz encounters stories like this every day. She works at Inova Health System in Virginia, and says all these challenges have a price tag.

LESLIE KRONZ: When people come into the system, if they're not diagnosed accurately, if they don't follow what they're being asked to do, if they're readmitted because of lack of understanding, all of those things add costs. It's not simply patients' problems. It's not simply the hospital or the health system's problems. It affects every one of us.

CARDOZA: Some researchers have estimated the cost of low health literacy is at least $100 billion each year. Experts say if the U.S. invested in adult education, these costs to society could be reduced. Instead, they say what's happening is we're cutting. The U.S. spends $2 billion on adult education, but that's a fraction of the funding that goes to schools and colleges. And there's been an almost 20 percent drop in funding since 2002. On top of that, the sequester will impose another 5 percent cut. For those adults who do manage to go back to school, their improved literacy skills can change their lives.

NUBE GUAMAN: (unintelligible) only book I've read.


CARDOZA: Nube Guaman is from Ecuador. She's at Literacy Partners, a nonprofit in New York City, along with her 17-year-old daughter, Vilma.

GUAMAN: My kids, really, they don't want pay attention when I didn't know English.

VILMA GUAMAN: If she would attend to the parent-teacher conference, she would just nod her head and leave.

CARDOZA: Parents who are literate are more likely to be involved in their child's schoolwork. And research shows this in turn results in higher test scores, better attendance and improved graduation rates. That's exactly what happened in the Guaman family, and Nube is now head of the PTA in her daughter's school. Anthony Tassi, who runs Literacy Partners, says educating adults has a multiplier effect.

ANTHONY TASSI: By focusing on parents, you can at once help cure the problem today and also prevent it long term, because as you enhance parents' skills, they will automatically transfer those skills to their children. You don't need to do anything extra.

CARDOZA: Adult education can also be the difference between wasted potential and a world of possibilities. Matthew Burke is an example. He graduated from high school even though he was reading at about the third-grade level. He got a job as a welder but found his lack of reading skills held him back.

MATTHEW BURKE: We'd leave notes on the board, you know, boom tracker broke down, didn't have time to fix, this is a problem.

CARDOZA: Except Burke's colleagues couldn't read or understand his notes, and he couldn't read theirs.

BURKE: If there wasn't someone around to ask what it was, then I went on to the next note, or I'd put it off when I probably should've taken care of that one because that was priority.

CARDOZA: Since learning to read, Burke says his life has changed. He no longer avoids looking at equipment manuals, and he's now enrolled in a community college blueprint class. When he completes that in a few months, Burke says his salary will increase 20 percent, and he'll have other job opportunities. But best of all, he says, he feels much better about his life.

BURKE: It makes looking at the future of having a family less stressful because I have a skill set, and I have a knowledge of something that I can support my family off of. And that's the biggest thing.

CARDOZA: For the millions of adults with low literacy, the ability to read, write and speak English might offer them the most important opportunity of all: a chance to emerge from the shadows and participate as equals in society. For NPR News, I'm Kavitha Cardoza.


Well, switching gears now, you may have enjoyed your extra hour's sleep this weekend, but some people say it's time to get rid of daylight saving time altogether.

YOUNG: What?

HOBSON: That's right, Robin. It's true. Economist Allison Schrager says daylight saving doesn't conserve much energy and may actually hurt the economy. She proposes just two time zones across the continental United States. We...

YOUNG: There's two just in Arizona.

HOBSON: Well, that's true. Well, no. In Arizona...

YOUNG: They switch all the time.

HOBSON: They - well, they never change, right? No, they would say we're the ones who switch.

YOUNG: Oh, I don't know.

HOBSON: They stay the same. Anyway, go to our Facebook page and let us know what you think of that idea: two time zones, east and west in the United States, and no daylight saving time.

This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.