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Issues in Literacy

Compelling global issues in the literacy domain include:

Literacy may have become a current "buzz word" but the importance of this major global issue has long been recognized by international educators and is laden with related issues, such as quality of life. Members of minority groups, without pen, paper, or literature in print in their own language, or literacy in any other language, are marginalized and certainly on the downside of the so-called digital divide. The current intensity and speed of globalization compounds the urgency of addressing the issue of literacy for all, especially among the poor and marginalized on as many fronts as possible.

Illiteracy and Income

One issue can not be ignored: Is there a relationship between illiteracy and income? Some of the figures at the extremes in the rates of literacy compared to the range of GNP per capita could suggest that there is a correlation.

Literacy rate Per capita income
below 40% less than $600
above 98% more than $12,000

In the comparison of these figures, as the literacy rate doubles, so doubles the per capita income. The message here, at least in individual economic terms, is that literacy has payoffs and is a worthwhile investment—so it seems.

Illiteracy may mean income loss not only for the individual but for society at large as well. According to the National Adult Literacy Survey, in the US alone, adult illiteracy carries an estimated price tag of more than $17 billion per year as a result of lost income and tax revenue, welfare, unemployment, crime and incarceration, and training cost for business and industry. This could suggest that the price tag for illiteracy at large is more than the cost of literacy.

However, figures like those above that suggest a causal correlation do not present the whole picture or may be misleading. A vast array of more complex factors are involved.

Usually for literacy to equal a better job, it has to be fluent literacy, accompanied by well-developed writing skills, mathematics, and general knowledge far beyond what is normally acquired in a basic adult literacy class. Secondly, we cannot equate literacy with wealth.

What literacy can mean for both the individual and society at large is betterment of people's lives—enhanced self-esteem, ability to read instructions on medications and civic documents, ability to learn new things which will help them to expand their knowledge, ability to cope with the majority society, etc. Literacy provides people with the option of becoming members of a self-confident and informed populace that can understand issues, represent themselves, take responsibility for self-improvement and family health, and better participate in civic affairs. These are among the priceless payoffs of literacy.

See also facts about illiteracy.