From the Desk of the CEO

Basic Literacy & Numeracy

From the Desk of the CEO: Changing the Systems that Perpetuate Poverty and Low Literacy

February 27, 2024

To discuss adult literacy in this country, we must look at the two worlds that Americans live in, in which our social systems—from housing to banking to education—tie individuals raised in disadvantaged communities to poverty, while those who grow up in middle class and affluent areas find support and opportunity to achieve future success. One of the biggest factors that contribute to this divide is the direct correlation between economic status and literacy levels. Lower literacy means lower paying jobs and less economic mobility, but it’s more than that. The reality is that low-literate adults didn’t suddenly have low income because they lack literacy skills—they were already earning less.

And adults don’t stay at low literacy levels because they didn’t want to learn how to read—their economic status set them up to fail from the time they were young. Everything is harder for families living in poverty, from maintaining long-term safe and affordable housing to keeping a car on the road, to holding bank accounts and securing loans with dismal credit scores. And any small slip can become an emergency that uproots a family physically or financially.

In a recent economic study, Dr. Jonathan Rothwell, Gallup’s principal economist, asserts that the ability to earn a family living wage is strongly related to one’s literacy level. The average annual income of adults who read at the equivalent of a sixth-grade level is $63,000. This is significantly higher than adults who read at a third- to fifth-grade level, who earn $48,000, and much higher than those reading below a third-grade level, who earn just $34,000 on average.

OK, so higher literacy correlates to higher earnings, that’s the goal, but we’re not setting up our future generations growing up in poverty to achieve that. In the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), reading proficiency levels for students in high poverty schools who were already reading at levels far below those of their more privileged peers declined even further in 2022.

The NAEP scores show that 81% of fourth graders who qualify for free or reduced lunches are not proficient, compared to only 49% of those who do not qualify for the free lunch program. Students with low literacy levels are four times less likely to graduate high school.

When the US spends more per student than most other countries, why haven’t we seen any sort of improvements among disadvantaged students?

Our current system relies too heavily on local property taxes to fund public education. Districts in high-poverty areas get less funding per student than districts in wealthier areas—highlighting the system’s inequity and how families living in these privileged communities benefit unfairly.

It’s a vicious systematic rhythm in which poverty and low literacy feed on one another to survive.

But there’s hope. In recent years, some states have recognized this and led the charge to overhaul their school funding systems to use a weighted student-based formula that allocates funding based on student need. More states need to follow.

Until we can solve the problem at its core, we know adult literacy programs do amazing things. We’ve seen firsthand how they transform lives. But that’s only true if a struggling adult makes their way to literacy services. Facing barriers like transportation, childcare, work conflicts, or emergency situations, only a small fraction of the 130 million adults who read below a sixth-grade level are receiving services.

We need policymakers to increase their focus on adult literacy so we can get adults the services they need, because educating parents will directly correlate to children with higher literacy levels and a future generation that can break through the barriers stacked against them to achieve financial security and upward mobility. Parents with high levels of literacy read to their children, help them with homework, and use a higher level of vocabulary.

Matthew Desmond, author of Poverty by America, states in his book, “Poverty isn’t a line. It’s a tight knot of social maladies. It is connected to every social problem we care about—crime, health, education, housing—and its persistence in American life means that millions of families are denied safety and security and dignity in one of the richest nations in the history of the world.”

There is an awakening in our country, with most Democrats and most Republicans telling pollsters that they think poverty is a result of unfair circumstances, not a moral failing. In his book, Desmond has said he “is trying to push that conversation in a way that helps us look at all the ways we’re entangled in these systems and act as unwitting enemies to the poor.”

With a greater understanding of the persistent structural inequities, we can work together to make sure that every family, regardless of their ZIP code, has access to quality education, health care, stable housing, and job opportunities.

How? Advocate with your representatives and within your community for state funding reforms that funnel more aid to schools and students in need. Attend your local adult literacy program’s next fundraising event. Raise awareness among family and friends about the systematic inequities in education, housing, and banking that make it harder to overcome low literacy and poverty. Support the adult literacy cause with a donation. Volunteer.