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Illiteracy: It’s everyone’s problem

Citizen Staff Writer

Editor and Publisher

You are reading this because you can. Many others cannot.

The harsh word for it is illiterate. Estimates are that 1 in 5 Tucson adults are illiterate; they can’t read or write.

Now a group that grew from the 2007 Tucson Regional Town Hall aims to infuse a culture of literacy in our community.

The Literacy Leadership Council is working on its final strategic action plan, and you need to be part of the action.

The problem is worse than the 1-in-5 figure above. Another estimated 20 percent of adults are only basic readers, meaning they cannot read this column and answer questions about it.

“Nor can they fill out an application, read a food label or read a simple story to a child,” according to a statement on the Web site www.lovetoread.org, maintained by the Literacy Volunteers of Tucson.

That’s the problem we face. We may be tempted to dismiss it as caused by Spanish-speaking illegal immigrants or a poor public school system.

To do so would be to deny the reality of the issue and its ramifications. A December report of the National Commission on Adult Literacy says employment and income statistics reflect illiteracy.

The report cited federal data that showed 2005 employment for people ages 16 to 64 who didn’t earn a high school diploma or a GED was 55.6 percent, compared with 72.9 percent for 16- to 64-year-olds overall.

Annual earnings for 16- to 64-year-olds without a diploma or a GED were $14,416, compared with $33,798 overall.

A U.S. Department of Education report, on www.love toread.org, said 60 percent of prisoners are illiterate and 85 percent of juvenile offenders have reading problems.

“Illiteracy leads to low self-esteem, unemployment, poverty and crime. Literacy empowers people to better their lives and the lives of their families, and communities,” the report said.

The point is clear: Illiteracy affects us all, and all need to work for full literacy. Instilling it in our culture is the key.

Margaret Doughty, a Houston literacy expert who has helped 70 communities do just that, was in Tucson this week to speak to the Literacy Leadership Council.

Her key advice, offered at a Tuesday luncheon, was to move literacy from its stigmatized place as a social issue to a place of prominence in the community, so it can be dealt with.

“Organizations have looked at literacy in the past as a social issue,” Doughty said. “Over the past few years, it has come out of its box and been infused in every realm in the community.”

She said that for Tucson, infusion could mean:

• Grant-makers should insist on a literacy component with every monetary request they receive. We will begin doing so immediately at the Tucson Citizen, with the modest level of grant money we award.

• Nonprofits should build literacy into every aspect of their operations. Many do so, including Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tucson, which has begun tying it to its mentoring programs.

• The media must push the concept consistently and thoroughly. The Citizen will lead an effort with all media in town. Competitors must be collaborators on this important issue.

“You have to set a goal: 100 percent literacy through 100 percent community engagement,” Doughty said.

Preparation work is under way, and the literacy council should go public within the next six months with its action plan.

We’re in. Are you?

Call Michael A. Chihak at 573-4646 or e-mail mchihak@tucsoncitizen.com.


Employment rates of 16- to 64-year-olds in the U.S. by educational attainment, 2005. Source: National Commission on Adult Literacy

Educational attainment Employment rate

Less than 12 years, or 12 years with no diploma or GED 55.6%

High school graduate/General Educational Development 70.0%

13-15 years, including associate’s degree 76.2%

Bachelor’s degree 81.3%

Master’s degree or higher 84.0%

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