Adult Education and Family Literacy Week is held each September with the purpose of raising awareness about the importance of basic literacy and numeracy skills for personal and social well-being, and economic security. Basic skills are key drivers of economic growth and societal advancement, and critical to the prosperity and development of children and families.
In the United States, 36 million adults have low levels of literacy and numeracy skills— meaning they aren’t able to read, write, and solve problems at levels necessary to perform their job or navigate common situations which require literacy; or they’re unable to use, interpret, and communicate mathematical information and ideas. Despite high levels of education nationwide, literacy and numeracy in the United States are still relatively weak compared to other industrialized countries, with little sign of improvement in recent decades according to a study released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) last fall.
The OECD study also revealed that socio-economic background has a very strong influence on adult basic skills. The incidence of low literacy and numeracy levels affects minorities, immigrants and communities of color at a disproportionate rate. According to the study, eight out of ten adults lacking basic skills are either Black (35 percent) or Hispanic (43 percent), compared with only one out of ten for Whites.
In our region, it is estimated that almost half a million people, or about 15 percent of the population 18 years and over, lack basic literacy skills. Prince George’s County has the largest concentration of low-skilled adults, roughly 22 percent of the population, followed by the District of Columbia (19 percent), Arlington (17 percent) and Alexandria (16 percent). Fairfax and Montgomery County adults fare a bit better, with only 11 percent of the population lacking basic literacy skills. These figures go hand-in-hand with educational attainment rates for adults 25 years and over. Prince George’s County has the largest share of adults (41 percent) who have only a high school degree or less, almost 15 percent higher than the regional average (27 percent) and roughly twice as much compared with Arlington (17 percent), the city of Alexandria (20 percent), Fairfax County (22 percent) and Montgomery County (24 percent).
Literacy and numeracy are highly linked to employment outcomes and economic security. Basic reading, writing and math skills are often a requirement for jobs that pay living wages. It becomes even harder to move up the ladder or succeed in workforce development programs if the baseline to understand new concepts, learn and participate in program activities is missing. Lack of literacy and numeracy skills affects individuals beyond their capacity to earn a living; it is also deeply correlated with personal well-being. Adults with low literacy skills are more likely to report low levels of health, trust, political efficacy, and volunteering. Parents’ reading and math skills also have a lasting impact on their children’s development and future success in schooling. Studies show that children of parents who have not completed high school are more likely to drop out themselves. As parents increase their literacy, they are better equipped to become involved in their children’s education and provide financial stability for their families.
At The Women’s Foundation, we recognize the importance of building basic skills among adults and the power of education to break the cycle of poverty. Since 2012, we have supported Academy of Hope’s efforts to provide women with the basic skills needed to be on a path toward obtaining better jobs and improving their overall well-being. In fact, last year for Adult and Family Literacy Week, we brought you the story of an Academy of Hope graduate, Dorothy, who taught us, at age 74, that it is never too late to go back to school. This year, the Foundation has continued its support for Academy of Hope, investing in the transition of Academy of Hope to an adult public charter school. In addition, through the Early Care and Education Funders Collaborative, the Foundation invests in school-readiness programs for children aged 0-5 that provide the foundation for a lifetime of learning.
Basic education for all lays the groundwork to live and work together, communicate, develop and share knowledge, and earn a living that pays family sustaining wages. Investing in adult and early childhood education is helping families to build a better economic future and increase social and personal well-being. Through our grants, we’re working towards a high literacy future for our region, taking a page out of Dorothy’s book and sticking to her motto, “If you dream it, you can achieve it.”