“The new data on illiteracy rates is a cry out for help to our school systems, policymakers, funders, and community members. Nothing short of a very strong investment in literacy through funding, diverse community partnerships, grassroots efforts, additional recruitment of qualified faculty, volunteerism, and allocation of other resources will help turn these numbers around in Prince George’s County."
-Tony Johnson, Executive Director of the Literacy Council of Prince George’s County, Maryland
By Tanaya Gable
What You Probably Didn't Know
More than one-third of American children enter kindergarten without the basic language skills they will need to learn to read. Those critical early literacy skills include recognizing the letters of the alphabet, understanding that books move from left to right, and being able to understand and tell stories. Despite the billions of dollars Americans have invested in remedial reading programs, those millions of children who enter school unprepared are highly likely to never catch up. In fact, 88% of first graders who are below grade level in reading will continue to read below grade level in fourth grade (Juel, 1988). In addition, reading difficulty contributes to school failure, which increases the risk of absenteeism, drop outs, juvenile delinquency, substance abuse, and teenage pregnancy - all of which perpetuate the cycles of poverty and dependency.
So What's the Connection?
There is a correlation between poverty and illiteracy. Statistics show that on both a national and global level, nations with the lowest literacy levels are also the poorest. Poverty leaves many households struggling to stay afloat. In worst case scenarios, children of those struggling households are forced to drop out of school to work and help support the family. This, unfortunately, keeps many illiterate people stuck at the lowest levels of the work force and thus they remain in poverty. Through this cycle, illiteracy reinforces poverty, and poverty is cyclical in families.
Growing Statistics in the County and State
According to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics, the basic literacy rate in Prince George’s County, MD for adults (parents) jumped from 12 percent to 22 percent between the early 1990s and early 2000s making Prince George's County home to the largest number of adults in the state and the metropolitan area who are unable to perform simple and everyday literacy activities. The January 2009 report puts the below basic literacy rates for Washington, D.C., Arlington County, VA, Baltimore City, MD and Montgomery County, MD at 19, 17, 16, and 11 percent respectively.
A study conducted at the end of 2011 by the Census Bureau confirmed that Maryland hit a poverty rate of 10.8 percent, the highest in nearly two decades. While these statistics are well below the national rate of about 15 percent, the state’s poverty rate increased 12.5 percent from 2009 to 2010 and continued to rise in 2011. In December 2010, Maryland was named the wealthiest state by the Census Bureau. However, research shows that pockets of suburban wealth help to conceal the rural and urban poverty that really exist in the state thus putting a blinder on the reality of state-wide poverty. A regional study from early 2011 showed more than 7 percent of Prince George’s County residents were living in poverty, the most of any Washington-area suburb.
A combination of a rapidly growing foreign-born population in Prince George’s County, decreasing graduation rates for African American and Latino students in county schools, and insufficient educational resources likely contributed to these growing rates.
County Poverty by Race
What is also interesting is the growing percentages of poverty among individual races. Take Hispanics for example, who make up a dynamic portion of the county and state population. For the first time since these statistics have been gathered, there are more Hispanic children in America living in poverty than white children. In the DC area, about 130,000 young people live in poverty, with blacks accounting for half of those numbers and Hispanics about a quarter, but moving up quickly. That number amounts to nearly 40,000 young people in the DC region. Thirty percent of poor children in Prince George's County are Latino, about the same number as in Montgomery County, MD, Fairfax, VA and Prince William, VA. Statistics are even worse in Arlington County, VA, where 40 percent of poor kids are Hispanic.
Prince George’s County Council member and Chair, Andrea Harrison (District 5) of Springdale has said that the county is very much aware of the statistics of poverty within the region. In her opinion, county reps should be stressing that more be done to equip non-profits that provide social services. In an economy that has shifted greatly from manufacturing to service, businesses cannot find the secretaries, clerks, bank tellers, and other entry-level employees they need because too many applicants cannot read, write or add well enough.
Poverty is, in most cases, generational as well. Adults who felt forced to drop out of school are less likely to reinforce the value of an education in their own children, who probably face the same economic and educational hardships as they did. As a result, these individuals may not value the importance of academia, scholarship and literacy, and are often less likely to flourish. Children whose parents consistently set high standards work harder and do better in school.
Current education and literacy programs in Prince George's County – like Prince George’s Community College and community-based organizations like Solid Rock Missionary Baptist Church of Suitland, United Communities Against Poverty of Capitol Heights, and Glenarden Apartments – only scratch the surface of the problem.
Before any change can come, we have to have a collective understanding of how damaging illiteracy can and has been for people all over the world, even those who are not illiterate themselves. The problem affects everyone. Becoming literate is not a direct path from illiterate to semi-literate to literate, but a messy process of acquiring skills without formal and consecutive learning. However, with the efforts of parents, educators, community organizers and even someone like you, who is simply reading this blog, illiteracy can be overcome.
Coming in March, Part III and the final installment of the Generational Illiteracy series.
International Reading Association (IRA)
National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)
National Center for Family Literacy (NCFL)
Reading Is Fundamental (RIF)