Literacy and the Economy

  • 07 September, 2010

From about 1992 to 2007, I typically started my presentations on reading with a focus on the economy. While I know there are colleagues who believe that literacy is a “manufactured crisis” and that literacy has little to do with the economy, I strongly believed that such views were inconsistent with the economic evidence as well as with what I see in adult literacy programs.

  However, when the economy melted down in 2007, I stood down. It wasn’t that I didn’t think that I had been correct about the role of literacy in the economy, but it looked like with the Great Recession that, perhaps, what had been true would no longer be true in the future. Let’s face it, the kinds of jobs the media reports were focusing on were the jobs of the highly educated: brokers and bankers and mortgage lenders, etc.

  But we’re three years past when credit markets started to freeze, and money market accounts struggled to maintain value, and foreclosures were on the increase. So, where are we on the relationship of literacy and the economy?

  It seems clear to me now that this terrible set of events has not altered the course that we were on, but it has apparently accelerated it.

  Essentially, what you'll see is that adults in the U.S. with less than a high school diploma have an unemployment rate that is 13.8 right now (and during the past year it has ranged between 13% and 15.3%). Fifteen percent unemployment isn’t exactly depression levels, but it’s the worst unemployment in my lifetime (and I’m old).

  For folks with a college degree (in anything), the current unemployment rate is 4.5%, while for just a high school diploma it is about 10%. That means that if you drop out of high school you have about a 1 in 7 chance of being out of work; if you complete only high school you have a 1 in 10 chance of no job, and if you complete a BA you have a 1 in 20 chance. (The length of unemployment varies by group, too--the low education people are more likely to get laid off and when they do get laid off it takes longer to find a new job). And these statistics are WORSE for BOYS.

  What all this is likely to mean is that unemployment levels are likely to continue this shift, and that we will carry a greater number of people who are structurally out work (meaning that it isn’t just a demand problem, but that even when demand comes back, these individuals will still struggle to work). Companies continue to rotate lower paying, lower education jobs to other economies (China is booming, for example), and they will continue to find technological ways to perform complex work for good pay.

  Education is the only economic protection that our kids. Last week, I was talking about this with educators in Superior, Wisconsin. A school psychologist followed up on my statistics. My first reaction was, “uh oh, he has caught me in a mistake” which forced me to re-examine the numbers. However, he wasn’t disagreeing with me, he just wanted to get the facts straight as he wants to share those numbers with high school kids. What a good idea.


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Literacy and the Economy


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.