“Being unable to read is like going outside without shoes on,” said Rhozier Brown, founder of the D.C.-based Inner Voices./ - Courtesy PhotoWhen literacy rates are high in cities, states or across the country as a whole, they tend to affect standards of living. That means more people are employed, therefore, driving down the need for public assistance.
But the reality is that millions of Americans are still unable to read or write -- and among those living in the nation’s cap-ital where more than half of its 600,000 residents are African American, one-third – or 1 in 5 adults – are affected. Labeled illiterate, they cannot fulfill the simplest of tasks that include filling out a job application, reading a note from their child’s teacher or comprehending street signs.
“Being unable to read is like going outside without shoes on,” said Rhozier Brown, founder of the D.C.-based Inner Voices, which advocates on behalf of formerly incarcerated individuals.
“You can’t do anything because you can’t get across the street – you don’t know where you are.”
Brown’s clients are largely young black males. Yet he said he has seen the issue stretch from ages 16 to 70 -- with indi-viduals over age 65 reportedly exhibiting the highest rates of illiteracy.
As a result, Brown said many have developed sophisticated ways of hiding the truth.
“They’ll say, ‘hey can you do me a favor and read this for me because I forgot my glasses’ and they will memorize what you’ve read,” Brown said.
“It’s a shame because a lot of them won’t do anything about it, but something needs to be done [as] it affects every-body.”
He added that in many instances, particularly where inmates are reading barely at the 6th grade level, it is becoming mandatory that they sign on for reading courses.
According to recently released Labor Department statistics, while the unemployment rate in the District fell slightly to 9.8 percent in December 2010, the numbers have remained steady in Maryland and Virginia. However, individuals who have difficulty reading make up a large portion of the unemployment lines, and according to a posting on PraiseDC.com, which states that changes in attitude will help; just 8 percent of the District’s illiterate are taking that lead.
Ward 8 Council member Marion Barry said that as far as he knows, “and while there [should be],” there are no initiatives among the City Council to combat illiteracy. He was referring in part to cuts former Mayor Adrian Fenty’s made last year in his budget surrounding education priorities.
But Barry, who did not mention a study commissioned in 2003 by then-mayor Anthony Williams which describe about 36 percent of Washingtonians as functionally illiterate, said there are programs in the widely impoverished District where unemployment exceeds 25 percent, to eradicate the issue.
Echoing Brown’s sentiments, “Illiteracy impacts everything,” Barry said.
“It impacts the kinds of jobs you get or don’t get, and in this day and age, even with a high school diploma it’s hard to find a job.”
At-large Council member Phil Mendelson said however, that funding could be restored for adult literacy education as the Council re-considers the matter again after the budget comes back to the table on April 1.
“We’ve also put money into the collaboratives that will reach out to the families and which will [cover] literacy for adults,” Mendelson said, adding that “illiteracy rates in the city have been way too high.”