Perhaps there is no skill more important to help Americans succeed in any industry or professional field than literacy. Proficiency in reading and writing is key to advancement, prosperity, and citizenship.
As September marks “National Literacy Month,” we must once again do all that we can to raise awareness and focus attention on resources toward raising literacy rates. According to the National Commission on Adult Literacy, an estimated 80 to 90 million adults — about half of the adult workforce — do not have the basic literacy skills required to obtain or succeed in jobs paying a family-sustaining wage; 43% of these adults live in poverty. In fact, 36 million adults struggle with literacy rates so low that it significantly impedes their ability to fully function at home, at work, and in their communities. And, according to ProLiteracy, nearly half of American adults have difficulty understanding information and making appropriate health decisions causing an increased probability of them incurring higher health costs, and in effect costs the U.S. over $230 billion per year in health care costs.
While my congressional district in South Texas is home to non-English speakers and residents for whom English is their second language, the literacy rate remains too low — 58 percent, and 50 percent in Hidalgo County alone. In fact, 19 percent of adult Texans cannot read a newspaper, according to the Texas Center for the Advancement of Literacy and Learning. It is also estimated that 59 percent of jobs in Texas will require some type of higher education certificate or degree by 2030.
These statistics clearly indicate that attaining basic literacy skills remains a struggle. Furthermore, it illustrates our challenge in helping students who are transitioning into professionals to overcome obstacles to literacy.
However, attaining these skills is not out of reach. Some of the nation’s best work in meeting this challenge and advancing literacy has been achieved on the local level in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas by Region One Education Service Center, the South Texas Literacy Coalition, the Deep South Texas Financial Literacy Alliance, and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, which hosts the annual Festival of International Books and Arts (FESTIBA).
Over the years, South Texas organizations have been excellent partners for my work on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and during my time at the Texas State Board of Education, by helping to expand access to education and focusing more attention on literacy in particular. Reading is Fundamental, GEAR-UP and other organizations at the national level have also made tremendous progress in promoting literacy and college readiness at home, in school, at work and across the country.
Among my proudest achievements was to receive the Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy’s leadership award, and to help strengthen career pathways for adult learners as enacted in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. I am also honored to be receiving a special recognition at the National Coalition for Literacy’s 2016 Literacy Leadership Awards at the end of this month for my commitment and support for adult education and leadership in advocating education as a congressional and national priority.
Additionally, I am proud to have co-founded both the bipartisan Adult Literacy Caucus, and the Financial and Economic Literacy caucuses in the U.S. House of Representatives. The latter has been instrumental in helping to raise awareness of the importance of helping adult learners navigate our increasingly complex financial system by making informed decisions on planning, saving, borrowing and investing with basic understanding of fundamental financial concepts.
Adult learners who achieve higher levels of literacy will be better positioned to experience greater economic prosperity and reap the benefits offered by our modern economy. There is much more work to be done in order to ensure they have the resources and opportunities to strive for a high school diploma, a college degree and more.
I thank all leaders and coalitions on the local , regional, and national levels for their outstanding work and strongly encourage them and our nation to continue to do their part to promote literacy at all levels during National Literacy Month this month and beyond.
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