It’s my first year serving on our local literacy board, and this week, I’m prepping for a bake sale as part of our annual fundraiser. In the past few months, it’s quickly become clear to me how little most people understand the impact of services like these on the surrounding community. Literacy education has life-changing power, and nowhere is this clearer than in impoverished areas.
As Americans, we are relatively fortunate. Out of 217 countries ranked by the CIA World Fact Book, the United States comes in 45th for literacy. Yet the economic odds are still stacked against those among us who are less literate—or illiterate—as they face tougher job hunts, difficulties managing money, and challenges accessing and assessing various types of information. Among other problems, low literacy rates are associated with a greater likelihood of incarceration, health problems, and teen pregnancy. While the term literate commonly refers to possessing the ability to read, modern scholarship recognizes several types of literacy, including digital literacy (the ability to locate and analyze information online) and financial literacy (the ability to make informed money management decisions). Our own program has been and will continue adapting its offerings to better fit with these emerging needs, particularly in the areas of addressing unemployment and building digital literacy.
That need continues to grow. In 2013, the New Yorker reported that in an analysis of teens and young adults in 24 participating countries, the United States came in second to last in literacy. Last March, Fortune shared another study concluding that literacy rates were dropping among millennials. That’s right: Compared to both their elders and their international peers, American millennials, the same generation achieving higher levels of education than ever before, even while racking up more and more student debt, aren’t doing so hot.
Adult literacy programs are one way to bridge the educational gap for my generation, as well as those preceding. Providing these services takes dedicated staff and volunteers. The economic value of literacy, however, cannot be overstated. The investments we make in literacy today will pay off handsomely tomorrow.