The empowerment of literacy

IMAGINE living in an illiterate's world: unable to read simple cake-box directions, let alone decipher a tax-form maze. Restaurant ordering requires calculated inferences. Grocery shopping becomes a guessing game. Some 27 million Americans share this plight. Their resources are limited to television and radio broadcasts; newspapers and magazines are foreign material. Jobless illiterates cannot read the want ads.

Since 1985 progress has been made in the area of awareness, at least. Project Literacy USA (PLUS), a union of the American Broadcasting Companies and the Public Broadcasting Service, has been promoting awareness through TV programs and public-service announcements.

Newspapers have created their own literacy programs. Tutoring projects are cropping up throughout the United States under the auspices of a variety of organizations. Businesses sponsor in-house or community literacy programs.

All of this is inspiring and effective work. But more must be done.

The Working Group on Adult Literacy estimates that the federal government spends $300 million a year combating illiteracy. The states spend another $300 million. This is a mere $20 for each adult without a high school diploma.

Productivity, welfare dependency, and crime levels are all connected to individual literacy. The linkages are clear.

Adults are often embarrassed to admit they cannot read. The US - the world's most prosperous nation - should be no less embarrassed to have the lowest literacy level among industrial countries.

Literacy empowers. Readers should help make this skill universal.

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