Literacy and Poverty as Social Responsibility

[Editor’s Note: This Post is written by volunteer Gerald Jackson as part of his ongoing series on topics in adult literacy]

Adult illiteracy, what some are calling the “adult literacy crisis,” is not a failure in our school system, nor is it the failure of a group of individuals. It is not the unfortunate reality in which some people learn to read and others who cannot simply do not. It is not an individual problem that then becomes a social problem. It is a from the ground up a social problem, a problem at once self-perpetuating and yet resulting from systemic poverty and class disparity.

In their essay “Adult Literacy and Poverty Alleviation: From Workforce investment to Community Organizing,” Ian Baptiste and Hleziphi Nyanungo analyze government programs meant to address unemployment  and poverty through literacy and skills training. Referring to the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, Baptiste and Nyanungo explain that the WIA strategy was one that “treats poverty as largely a literacy crisis; requiring the poor to simply gain marketable skills– defined as skills, attitudes, and dispositions that employers want.”1 This means that individuals were trained to fill job openings that existed, rather than teaching them the adequate skills to get possible jobs in the future. In this regard, “literacy” became skills training rather than a general education training.2 As such, literacy became a functional skill rather than a general one: it existed entirely to fulfill a specific purpose, defined by the realities of the job market, rather than a personal and social purpose of civic engagement and personal expression. These aspects (civic, personal expression, applicable job skills) are things we teach in teh college first-year writing classroom… and yet for adults at the times, it seems, the drive was to get people to work.

One way to contextualize this is to think about the problem of literacy as structural. Illiteracy has obvious and documented ties to poverty and substandard education. Children in economically lower-class areas have less academic opportunities available at the K-12 level, and with the lack of funding or infrastructural support for these schools,  there is very little incentive for  students to receive an adequate education focusing on general literacy skills. Furthermore, this creates a cycle in which parents who are in some way functionally illiterate statistically tend to raise children who also do not acquire some sort of linguistic competency. Consider also that literacy itself, the ability to read, write, and comprehend complex documents or speeches, seems to be a major way of addressing the problem of social inequality and poverty. Through this consideration, illiterate adults are less likely to have at their disposal the necessary tools and capabilities to effectively address their station and situation. As a result, poverty and literacy become linked in such a way that poverty begets illiteracy, which begets poverty.

The question of poverty itself is much more complex then what I have suggested here. But I think it important to recognize how adult illiteracy and poverty work together to limit the opportunity of individuals who need a job, or want to participate in their local community or, if nothing else, to speak out on their own behalf. And these problems are not just the problem of the individual: the stage for this circle is set in place by social conditions stemming from sharp income disparity and inequality. The fact of the matter is that schools from lower-income areas do not have the resources, capacity, or communal structure available to their higher-class counterparts. In order to address adult literacy, we must both support efforts to teach adults how to read and write (represented by groups such as Turning Pages),  and we must address how adults become illiterate, how they are allowed to go through childhood without the necessary support to provide productive literacy practices as part of a well-rounded general education.


1. Ian Baptiste and Hleziphi Nyanungo, “Adult Literacy and Poverty Alleviation: From Workforce Investment to Community Organizing,” PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning 16 (2007): 21.

2. Ibid., 22-23.