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Reading Gets the Job Done

September 21, 2004

Is it possible that more than half of working-age people in Los Angeles County are such poor readers that they have trouble reading street signs and understanding a utility bill, as a new literacy study says?

OK, forget the utility bills. Unfair to expect anyone to make sense of those.

But looking at the number of county residents driving cars, navigating the bus system and even -- occasionally -- walking, it's hard to believe they can't read signs, as the study would have us believe.

Maybe that's because the study's numbers are statistical forecasts rather than census-like counts of real people or the result of tests of their reading skills. As the study puts it, "synthetic estimates were made with a predictive model," and how many people can claim to read that with perfect comprehension? It's also a bit of a name game; immigrants who can read and write in their native languages but not in English are classified as illiterate in this study. In Southern California, the so-called literacy problem is probably in large part a simple language barrier.

All this shouldn't mask the fact that many people truly cannot read or write well, and those who can do so only in another language also are handicapped when it comes to finding good jobs or helping their children with schoolwork. If the real-life number is 53% or 42% or 26%, it's still too high.

The study, commissioned by business, government and education groups and announced with fanfare earlier this month, was provoked at least in part by employers' complaints that they couldn't find workers with needed language skills. Let's put that in perspective: In today's dismal job market, there are available workers with good language skills, but these employers don't want to pay the money to get them.

It's natural to think that the blame, and the solution, rests with the schools. But the reality is far more complex -- and circular. Without parents who read to them, help with homework and communicate with teachers, children have little chance of succeeding in school. Yet how can parents find the time to attend adult education classes when they work a low-paying job, often two, while also taking care of their children?

The most intriguing answer comes from a handful of progressive companies, such as American Apparel and Classic Party Rentals, that provide these classes at the workplace and in some cases allow employees to attend during work hours. These employers understand that they either have to pay higher wages for the kind of employees they want or pay to teach the less skilled. It costs about $25,000 a year to offer one literacy class a day in the workplace.

Lawmakers should help by providing a tax credit to such companies. They're not only training a better workforce but investing in the literacy of workers' children.

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