Literacy is an engine of economic growth – will we be able to seize it?

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Across our economy, there are shortages – of skills, workers and opportunities. Employers say they can’t find the workers they need. And yet tens of millions of workers are stuck in low-wage, low-growth jobs, with limited economic potential and few opportunities to pursue the American dream.

Some say the only answer is more robots, self-service kiosks and other technologies to replace workers that employers say they can’t find.

There’s a better option — and one we should all embrace: helping an estimated 130 million Americans develop the literacy skills they need to apply for and fill available jobs.

It is the overlooked and often underserved American adults who struggle with low literacy. While they can read basic words and phrases, anything complex—this opinion piece, for example—is too difficult for them.

Even basic forms and job applications are a challenge for them. COVID-related health notices and hospital forms leave them confused about what to do and how to stay safe. They struggle to read a ballot, read reviews from teachers at their children’s school, or write a simple email.

These Americans are not without hope. They often work hard and have several jobs, but not well paid. The average annual income of an adult with what is called Level 0 or Level 1 proficiency is just over $34,000, which is equivalent to earning minimum wage. If they move to proficiency level 2—still below basic literacy—their average income rises to $48,000. At skill level 3, which is the minimum level required in our society, their average income is $63,000.

And it’s not just what they might win that matters. When someone can read better, they have more options in life. Someone stocking shelves in a warehouse today could review and enter inventory – greater accountability. A hospital staff member who lifts patients from their beds today could be part of their clinical team, working with doctors and nurses. A mom who can’t help her kids with homework today might be mulling over college applications and scholarship requirements. There’s dignity in all work, but there’s something special about reaching our potential and taking on new responsibilities — and that’s only possible with literacy.

In addition, increased literacy will boost our economy and our global competitiveness. A Gallup study commissioned by the Barbara Bush Foundation showed that bringing all adults to Level 3 literacy would generate an additional $2.2 trillion in annual economic activity – a 10% increase equivalent to all of Italian economy.

Literacy is not just a matter of words and sentences: it is a matter of opportunity. It is about bridging economic and social gaps. And these are the communities so often left behind. The states and regions hardest hit by low literacy rates are Southern states, metropolitan areas, and especially communities with large or majority African-American and Hispanic-American neighborhoods.

Meeting this national challenge cannot be the work of a single foundation and a few committed people. We need a broader coalition of employers, businesses, philanthropists and other volunteers to scale up and promote literacy programs that work.

We begin by recognizing that for many Americans, literacy is not a given. If you grow up in a household where reading is rare and books even rarer, the road to literacy is difficult. The good news is that today’s digital platforms have the power to erase yesterday’s barriers, helping families learn anytime, anywhere.

Mobile apps can offer learning in the form of short, practical lessons. Even a subway or bus can become a classroom when someone takes 10 minutes out of their commute to learn on their cell phone. Artificial intelligence tools that turn learning into play can make reading lessons more personalized, fun and engaging, encouraging parents and children to learn together. The possibilities are endless if we all commit to investing in adult literacy – both a pre-emptive and reactive accelerator for our economic recovery.

What matters is commitment, and that often starts with recognizing the nature of the challenge. It’s bigger than the challenge of finding workers for a few companies. This is a national emergency: About 54% of Americans are earning and making less than they could and should because they simply cannot read at a basic level.

The opportunity is just as great. Unleashing the full potential of these 130 million citizens and empowering them to pursue their American dream would be an economic bonanza unlike anything we have seen in our lifetime. We would go from a skills shortage to a talent glut, and a boom in incomes and productivity of our nation’s most untapped resource: the American people.

British A. Robinson is President and CEO of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. Mike Rogers is the founder of Leadership to Ensure the American Dream (LEAD) and a former US Representative from Michigan. Along with his wife, Kristi Rogers, Mike is also co-chair of the Barbara Bush Foundation’s 2023 National Reading Celebration.


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