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Literacy: A critical issue

OPINION by Jim Davidson | November 21, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.

There is an old saying that "A Squeaking Wheel Gets the Most Grease." What this old saying does not include is that the wheel must be moving before you can tell whether it's squeaking or not.

This is my way of introducing you to a very important topic today, and this topic is literacy. Most people will agree that literacy is a very important topic, but I am convinced that the vast majority of people in America do not truly know how bad it is. There is a reason for this, and I will share this in a moment. When I was growing up back in the 1950s, the United States of America led the world in test scores for math, science and literacy. Today, our nation has reportedly been ranked as low as 18th of 21 industrialized nations in these important bench marks.

This reason for this sad state of affairs is because of human nature. In a social setting, we tend to seek out those people who make us comfortable. If we are highly educated and have become very successful, these are the types of people we seek out and with whom we choose to spend our time. Highly literate people want to be around other literate people, at least in our free time.

The following statistics compiled by ProLiteracy, an organization that keeps data on this important skill, could be very enlightening. In the United States of America, there are more than 43 million adults who cannot read, write or do basic math above a third-grade level. Bringing all adults to the equivalent of a sixth-grade reading level would generate an additional $2.2 trillion in annual income for our country. It is estimated that between $106 billion and $238 billion in health care costs a year are linked to low adult literacy skills. And here is where it gets serious: Workers who have less education than a high school diploma have the lowest median weekly earnings ($592), which is three times less than the highest level of education.

This statistic tears out my heart: 75 percent of state incarcerated individuals did not complete high school or can be classified as low literate. Yet, here is hope: 43 percent of individuals who participate in correctional education programs are less likely to recidivate than inmates who do not. This should give all of us something to think about and motivation to get involved in literacy programs in our community. This goes far beyond people not being able to read. Illiteracy impacts insurance rates, crime, illegal drug use and many other things that impact our quality of life.

One of the things that motivated me when we started the Conway Bookcase Project in 2005 is that I had learned that 61 percent of low-income families had NO books in the home for their children to read during their formative years. If a child goes to preschool and beyond with a very low vocabulary, they are already a candidate for being a high school dropout. Remember what I said earlier that 75 percent of prison inmates did not finish high school.

Here is a final thought that could make a real difference for many of these children. When it is time for a child's birthday or Christmas gifts, get them a good book that has a storyline with a lesson or a moral, rather than an electronic gadget and other noneducational toys. My goal is to make each of my readers aware of the problem and ask you to get involved.

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