Adult Illiteracy: Cause? Effect?
Common Assumption: Illiteracy Causes Poverty and Crime.
A pervasive but erroneous assumption about adult illiteracy is that it causes many social ills--poverty and crime especially. Jonathan Kozol's Illiterate America (1985), for example, charges that 60 million Americans cannot read, and therefore cannot hold down any jobs except the most menial. Many popular press articles on adult literacy explicitly cite illiteracy as a cause of poverty, as does this advertisement for New York City's United Way (Village Voice, March 20, 1990), which shows a dejected man on a street curb and reads
This is illiteracy.
This is alcohol.
This is hopelessness.
Homelessness has many causes. But with just one contribution you can support hundreds of programs that attack the roots of the problem . . .
It is not only lay persons who promulgate this sort of stereotyping. The 1990 president of the International Reading Association, Dale D. Johnson, in speaking to IRA's first North American Conference on Adult and Adolescent Literacy on January 13, 1990, said, "We can't divorce our concern for literacy from our concern for the homeless."
The harm in assuming that illiteracy causes various social ills is at least threefold:
(1) It focuses attention, energy, and funds on illiteracy instead of on the
circumstances in which illiteracy flourishes.
(2) It is wrong; many illiterate and low-literate adults in the US have jobs, live productive lives, and contribute positively to the society around them.
(3) It lends itself to blaming the victim. Those who cannot read are blamed not only for their own illiteracy but, if they are also unemployed and live amidst deplorable conditions, their illiteracy is in turn blamed for their low status. The thinking goes, "If they would just learn to read, they could get good jobs, move out of the ghetto, and join the country club." It doesn't work that way.
A More Accurate Idea: Correlation, Not Cause
We should not confuse correlations with causes. In 1979, David Herman and Carmen St. John Hunter published Adult Illiteracy in the United States: Report to the Ford Foundation. Over a decade later, this is still the most respected and dependable work on adult illiteracy in this country. Hannan and Hunter estimated that there were then between 18 and 28 million hard-core, invisible poor who suffered from multiple deprivations poverty, unemployment, crime, and illiteracy. And that was before crack cocaine.
If being illiterate caused joblessness, substandard housing, or high infant mortality, then becoming literate should undo or at least begin to solve these problems. Now it is true that when poor and illiterate adults learn to read, they benefit in many ways. But they do not necessarily increase their chances of getting jobs when there are no jobs to be had. Their new literacy does not end gang warfare in their neighborhoods, nor does it provide affordable housing when single occupancy dwellings are torn down or low-rent buildings are converted to high-rent, gentrified condominiums. It does not change the odds of life or death for their babies (a baby born today in Harlem has less chance of growing up than a baby born in Bangladesh). Moreover, many ghetto dwellers as well as homeless people are already amply literate, yet their literacy has not earned them safe living space or a secure future.
The standard of living in the U.S. rose considerably in the early 20th century, yet the literacy levels for many adults were much lower than they are today. These low literacy levels neither prevented nor caused the economic growth of the early 20th century. Similarly, while inadequate literacy complicates the serious social problems of the late 20th century, it does not cause them. To remedy large-scale social problems requires first of all that we analyze those problems correctly.
©CELT, 1991. Revised, 1998. A project sponsored by the Center for the Expansion of Language and Thinking (CELT), c/o CED, 325 E. Southern, Tempe, AZ 85282. CELT Crisis Hotline 602~929~0929. This statement may be photocopied for distribution.