September 8th is International Literacy Day. Since 1967, communities across the globe have come together to recognize this important day “…to remind the international community of the importance of literacy for individuals, communities and societies, and the need for intensified efforts towards more literate societies.”
By celebrating International Literacy Day, we acknowledge literacy as a matter of dignity and human rights. No part of life is not directly affected by literacy.
What is Literacy?
Literacy is more than technical reading, writing, and counting skills, but is understood as a means of identification, understanding, interpretation, creation, and communication in an increasingly digital, text-mediated, information-rich, and fast-changing world.
Globally, there are an estimated 773 million children and adults with low or no literacy. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, UNESCO estimates that there are 1.6 billion learners affected by school closures, with the average child having lost over a year of learning. Nationally, more than 43 million adults cannot read, write, or do basic math above a third-grade level. In North Carolina, 21.3% of the population have low literacy, putting North Carolina at 35 out of 50 states. Locally, in New Hanover County, 15% of adults have very low literacy (at or below Level 1) and 30% have minimal literacy skills (at Level 2). For kids in our county, less than 63% of third graders and eighth graders are reading at proficient levels and math skills decline with advanced grade levels.
At Atrómitos, our company mission is to create healthier, more resilient, and more equitable communities. Foundational to this is addressing literacy within our communities. This mission is particularly close to my own heart. As a Board member of the Cape Fear Literacy Council for the last three years, I've had the privilege to see first-hand the impact that literacy teaching and learning has on not just individual lives but our community.
The consequences of no or low literacy are extensive. They affect not just the individual but their family and the community in which they live and work. Literacy affects the cost of health care: Between $106 and $238 billion in health care costs a year are linked to low adult literacy skills. Literacy affects an individual’s earnings and employment opportunities, the economy overall. It is associated with increased rates of crime and recidivism. It also is an indicator for the literacy skills of future generations; a mother’s reading skills are the most significant determinant of her children's future academic success.
Understanding the Interdependencies between Literacy and Health
In his recent post on the Mirror, Mirror 2021 report by The Commonwealth Fund, my colleague Peter Freeman analyzed the findings that the US has the worst-performing health care system of 11 industrialized, wealthy nations. One of the primary reasons is our systemic failure to address social determinants of health (SDOH). I propose that we take more active steps to address SDOH in our communities, with literacy to the top of the list of our priorities. To accomplish this, we must fund programs in a meaningful and consistent way. According to ProLiteracy, “currently 50% of adult education programs are struggling with long student waiting lists due to demand exceeding program capacity,” leading to “less than 10% of adults in need receiving services.”
As business owners, we have a responsibility to support our communities. We also have a self-interest in supporting programs that increase the literacy levels in our communities. A September 2020 analysis found that improving adult literacy by bringing all adults to the equivalent of a 6th-grade reading level would generate an additional $2.2 trillion in annual income for the country. That's a 10% increase in GDP. Our failure to invest in universal literacy is a fundamental failure to invest in ourselves as a nation.
Imagine what this would mean for your business.
Imagine what it means to the individual and their family.
What You Can Do
Join me this International Literacy Day in recognizing the critical role that literacy plays in all aspects of life. Here are three actions you can take to support literacy teaching and learning in our community:
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