All We Have to Lose is Everything: The High Price of Illiteracy

Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Ghanaian diplomat, Kofi Annan, once said that “Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope… a tool for daily life in modern society… a bulwark against poverty, and a building block of development… Literacy is a platform for democratization, and a vehicle for the promotion of cultural and national identity. For everyone, everywhere, literacy is… a basic human right…. Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman, and child can realize his or her full potential.”

Statistics tend to back up Annan’s assertion that literacy is essential for a flourishing human society. For instance, did you know that:

  • over 65% of all state and federal prison inmates have little to no literacy skill?
  • or that low health literacy costs the U.S. between $106 billion and $236 billion each year?
  • or that every year the U.S. loses $225 billion in non-productivity in the workforce, crime, and loss of tax revenue due to unemployment?*

Even if you find your eyes just skimming right over those appalling statistics, let’s look at some general, and easy to understand, realities. If I were to ask you what Iraq, Mexico, Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the inner-city of Chicago all have in common what would you say? They are all poverty-stricken, yes. Each is plagued by out-of-control violence, true. But, would you also think to say that all of these places also have a high rate of illiteracy? Poverty, violence, illiteracy: these three issues are not isolated, but, rather, so closely interconnected that it is difficult to tell which one occurs in an area or country first. One thing is certain, though, a country’s literacy level is directly proportional to the levels of violence and poverty experienced by its citizens.

Look at the United States as a whole: we are a fairly wealthy country and have not had any wars on our soil since the middle of the 19th century. Yet, our education statistics have been steadily sliding and the number of illiterate adult Americans is somewhere around 30 million. At the same time, incidents of violence against women and children have been on the rise and we are smack in the middle of a terrible recession. Coincidence?

So, we ask ourselves what can we do? How do we stop the plague of illiteracy and all that accompanies it? Well, here are some ideas:

1. Become a volunteer tutor at your local literacy program. If you are clueless as to whether your community even HAS a literacy program, contact your city or county library. If that brings up nothing, get in touch with your local United Way, they usually have a directory of community services available.

2. Donate books to your local library. The proceeds from Friends of the Library book sales go back to the library to help staff design and implement programs meant to battle illiteracy.

3. Teach your own children/grandchildren/nieces and nephews to read and love books.

4. See about setting up a reading remediation class at your workplace. You might be surprised how many of your coworkers are functionally or totally illiterate.

Get creative and enlist the help of other people in your community. When we all pitch in, we can ensure that literacy is, indeed, a basic human right for everyone, everywhere.

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