Exploring the Connection Between Literacy and Equity at SXSW EDU


Austin, TX ­— President and CEO of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, British A. Robinson, spoke on Monday, March 7, 2022, in a panel at the SXSW EDU Conference & Festival. The panel, Literacy: The Key to Equity and Economic Recovery, featured leading experts in literacy and finance in a discussion on how improving literacy rates can lift families out of poverty and drive economic recovery.

Literacy and the United States economy are inextricably linked, and we now know that we will never be able to close financial gaps and help people achieve equity if they cannot read,” stated Robinson. “By working across both corporate and philanthropic sectors, we have a profound opportunity to break multigenerational cycles of poverty and to offer families the ability to live their lives with the dignity they so deserve.”

Panel moderator Denine Torr, Dollar General’s Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility and Philanthropy, shared, “Over 30 million adults in the United States do not have a high school diploma and over 40 million read at the third-grade level or below. These staggering numbers affect not only their quality of life, but our country’s workforce and economy.”

Citing a 2020 Gallup study to underscore her point, Torr stated that moving all adults to a sixth-grade reading level would add roughly $2.2 trillion, or 10% of gross domestic product, to the U.S. economy annually. Currently, 54% of American adults read below the equivalent of a sixth-grade level.

Holly MacDonald, Bessemer Trust’s Chief Investment Officer, stressed the urgency of the matter by saying, “These numbers should be a call to action throughout corporate America. As the economy continues its recovery in the wake of the pandemic, there has never been a greater need for employees and literacy is at the core of a skilled workforce.”

Echoing these sentiments, Ken Bigger, Senior Fellow at the American Library Association’s Center for the Future of Libraries, said, “There is no doubt that the future of work is going to rely on our ability to re-skill and re-train people to adapt to economic need. History has shown that every time we hit a dislocation, those who cannot read suffer disproportionally. It’s time to tackle the barriers that impede literacy and make reading a priority in order to solve other societal problems.”

The SXSW EDU Conference & Festival is a reflection of the world’s most critical social issues as seen through the lens of education, bringing together thought leaders from private, public and nonprofit organizations.


About the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy: The Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy has been the nation’s leading advocate for family literacy for more than three decades. Established by former First Lady Barbara Bush in 1989, the Foundation is a public charity dedicated to creating a stronger, more equitable America in which everyone can read, write and comprehend in order to navigate the world with dignity. To learn more, visit

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