This One Thing Can Improve a Life

Or Tragically Hold It Back

I found my son staying up well past his bedtime, a book hidden under his covers. With a stern voice, I reminded him that it was a school night.

“Can I finish this chapter? Pleeeeease?” he begged.

I pretended to deliberate. “Well . . . okay. But turn your light out right after that.” I closed his door.

And did a silent jig right there in the hallway.

My excitement wasn’t from knowing that my son was enjoying an adventure between the covers a book.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by abednego s g on Unsplash

According to ProLiteracy, an organization dedicated to worldwide literacy, 70% of adult welfare recipients in the U.S. have poor literacy, and nearly half of Americans with poor literacy skills live in poverty.

According to Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, or PIAAC, the percentage of workers with low literacy skills is much greater than for those employed part-time or who are unemployed.

Again, using PIAAC numbers, 74% of those making less than $16,000 per year in the U.S. are at or below Level 2 Literacy, meaning they may be unable to understand a food label, movie ticket pricing, or a bus schedule.

Life for the illiterate population wasn’t always this bad. Back in the 1950s, some 60% of jobs were unskilled. They required no advanced education — only common sense, muscle, and a good work ethic. Today only about 20% of jobs fit that description, and those jobs have low pay.

No matter what a child wants to be — doctor, movie director, artist, architect, teacher — they’ll need to read and write to get there. Even a kid who flips burgers and asks customers, “Do you want fries with that?” will almost certainly have to communicate with the written word in some way, whether via email or, more and more likely, via text message, at the very least.

Workers will continue to need literacy skills to keep their jobs as they communicate with colleagues, managers, teammates, customers, and more.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Marcelo Leal on Unsplash

When I first heard that illiteracy has a huge medical price tag for the nation, I didn’t immediately understand why. After all, being able to read a book and write an email don’t seem to have much to do with physical health.

As it turns out, the connection between literacy and health is huge. According to ProLiteracy, individuals with poor literacy skills are 52% more likely to be hospitalized and are at higher risk for diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and certain types of cancer.

But it’s not just the individual that is affected: Illiterate adults have a tremendous impact on their children’s health. This is for several reasons, including not knowing enough about basic nutrition and hygiene, not being able to learn about what symptoms deserve a doctor visit and which don’t. How to care for a child who is sick. How to advocate for your child with a doctor who may not catch a symptom or think or running a test unless the parent has educated themselves enough and asks for it.

Even simple things, like being unable to read and fully comprehend how to take a prescription medication could have disastrous results for a child.

Illiterate parents, if they have jobs, are probably living in poverty and unable to purchase high-nutrition food. There is a strong correlation between the poorest states in the U.S. also having the highest rates of obesity. Cheap food is unhealthy food.

Image for post
Image for post
by Elaine Casap on Unsplash

By contrast, literate families understand germs and hygiene. They know the warning signs of illness, when to see a doctor, and what questions to ask when they get there, so they’re better advocates for themselves and their children. They understand medical forms, pamphlets, and prescription information.

A literate person is twice as likely to understand a disease and how to treat it as their illiterate counterparts. The 2003 ProLiteracy report says that most diabetics with low literacy skills couldn’t identify a normal blood sugar reading — a piece of information that could help someone live, or increase their chances of dying.

While those with low literacy skills are more likely to get sick in the first place, they also can’t afford medical care when they do get sick. So when they are treated, those medical costs end up being paid by the literate population.

Truly, the best way to improve the entire nation is to focus on education and literacy skills for everyone, especially those who at the highest risk of having low literacy skills: Black, Hispanic, and Other Race, as reported by PIAAC.

Children and teenagers with illiterate parents have lower grades than their counterparts. They exhibit more anti-social behaviors, are more likely to drop out of school, and are at higher risk for drug use and teen pregnancy. Parents’ attitudes toward education — often a result of their own educational levels— tends to be passed on. Children often don’t go beyond their own parents’ schooling.

All of this can sound discouraging, but there is good news: When parents were given literacy training, the negatives turned around. Their children’s grades go up, they make friends, they become physically healthier, they stay in school, and the incidence of risky behaviors drops.

Image for post
Image for post
by Juan Ramos on Unsplash

Women with poor literacy have an even tougher hill to climb, particularly in countries where educating girls isn’t valued. If an illiterate woman needs to work — and chances are, she does — she’ll earn 70% of the paltry amount an illiterate man on the same literacy level makes.

Educating women reduces poverty because of the many resources a woman brings home. Her family benefits financially and nutritionally, but she also has a tremendous influence on her children’s education and their future.

The higher a woman’s education, the better off her children are at every stage, from before and after birth (uneducated mothers have more preterm births and higher infant mortality) through the school years (uneducated mothers pass on poor hygiene, poor health, and have children with low grades and high dropout levels). Children of uneducated teen mothers often repeat the cycle, dropping out of school and having their own children in poverty.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Heather Mount on Unsplash

As a parent, aunt, uncle, grandparent, neighbor, or friend, you can make a difference.

  • Let kids catch you reading — especially if you’re male. When boys see only female role models reading, they sometimes get the message that reading is for girls.
  • By the same token, avoid classifying books as “girl” books and “boy” books. Research shows that girls are as likely as boys to pick up so-called “boy” books, but the reverse isn’t true: if a book is labeled as a “girl” book, a boy may be socially pressured to avoid it. But a great book is a great book!
  • Read aloud to kids, even when they’re past toddler stage.
  • Volunteer at a school, library, or literacy center.
  • Read books they’ve read or are reading so you can talk about it. Take it a step farther: have a family or neighborhood book club.
  • Visit the library. Check out books, attend story time, and get involved in events.
  • Make it fun. Don’t insist kids finish a book they find boring. Find a new book instead. Pick a book that has a movie made of it, and then watch it after reading the book together. Talk about what you liked and didn’t. Hear kids’ opinions. Have reading party.
  • Listen to audio books. This is great in the car.
  • Keep books where kids can reach them. They won’t be read if they’re out of sight or out of reach.
  • Encourage kids to enter reading and writing contests.
  • Donate. Schools and libraries can always use more funding. Donate money, books, and your time.

A community’s literacy affects everyone, for better or worse. Working to help the next generation learn and grow is one of the best things we can do for our future.

Written by

USA Today bestselling & award-winning author of women’s fiction & romance. Word nerd. Chocoholic. Mom.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store