By British Robinson, President and CEO, Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy
Imagine not being able to help your kids with their homework because you can’t understand the instructions. Imagine being afraid to give them medicine for a cold because you can’t read the dosage guidelines on the box. Imagine not being able to fill out a job application, vote in a local election or drive somewhere new because you can’t always understand and follow the directions.
For the 36 million Americans—one in every six adults—who struggle with low literacy, this is a reality. Coming from a public health background, I often think about this massive number in terms of the major diseases of our time. Today in America, 28.1 million people live with heart disease, 22.9 million have been diagnosed with cancer and 30 million live with diabetes. We’re all aware of those diseases, but literacy—which affects millions more of us—remains a silent crisis that has been largely ignored, historically underfunded and woefully under-researched.
Our founder, Barbara Bush, knew instinctively that literacy is critical to the success of not just individuals, but our nation as a whole. She once said, “If more people could read, write and comprehend, we would be that much closer to solving so many of the problems that plague our nation and our society.” Over the years, her beliefs have been repeatedly validated. Improved literacy rates have the power to strengthen our economy by boosting labor productivity, cutting billions of dollars in healthcare costs and breaking the cycle of poverty for families in need.
The opportunities are right in front of us: Consider that today, 88% of children under age 6 whose parents do not have a high school diploma live in low-income families. The number one determinant of children’s future academic success is their mother’s level of education—so if we can educate mom, we can start to break the cycle. Additionally, 53% of adults 25 and over who did not graduate high school are not participating in the workforce. Federal, state and local governments stand to gain an additional $2.5 billion in tax revenue and reduced expenses for every 400,000 adults who earn a high school diploma.
As we work to fulfill Barbara Bush’s legacy, our calling is to improve lives through literacy. No longer can we allow low literacy to hold back one in every six Americans from fully engaging in our society as parents, workers and citizens. We are dedicated to expanding access to literacy services for adults nationwide because we believe in the uniquely transformative power of literacy. The ability to read, write and comprehend brings dignity to daily life and equal opportunity to fulfill one’s greatest potential.
As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy this year, I am invigorated by the opportunity to build upon the nearly $110 million in support that we have provided for literacy programs in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. We’re now making plans to expand our efforts on family literacy, focusing on improving lives academically, financially and socially. We are learning through research and evaluation what works and how we can do better, and we are embracing technological advances like the Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE.
But we cannot tackle this national crisis alone. We need involvement from businesses, educators, philanthropists, influencers, technology experts and anyone else who brings new ideas and perspectives to the table. We also need advocates and policymakers at all levels to join us in our efforts to make literacy a reality for every American.
Together, we can give people access to opportunities that will create change today and for generations to come. After all, in the words of our founder:
“If we don’t give everyone the ability to simply read and write, then we aren’t giving everyone an equal chance to succeed.”
Originally published on British A. Robinson’s LinkedIn page.