Crisis in Literacy Touches All of Us

Missy Buckner, 56, of Pontiac, left, and Mary Kroneman, 60, of Birmingham review phonics as part of the Oakland Literacy Council program. "She's amazing," Kroneman says. "She works like her life depended on it."

Missy Buckner, 56, of Pontiac, left, and Mary Kroneman, 60, of Birmingham review phonics as part of the Oakland Literacy Council
program. “She’s amazing,” Kroneman says. “She works like her life depended on it.” / Photos by KATHLEEN GALLIGAN/Detroit Free Press

By Robin Erb and John Gallagher

Detroit Free Press Staff Writers

On a personal level, the stories of people who can’t read are of humiliation and frustration, of opportunities lost and secrets kept.On a larger scale, Michigan’s literacy issue is about losing hold of the future: losses in workers’ earning potential, an eroded tax base, a drain on social services and higher health care costs.

“It’s a bigger picture than the individual. When we don’t have a community that is educated, we don’t have an economy that is nimble and innovative,” says Sister Janice Brown, director of the Dominican Literacy Center in Detroit, which is tutoring about 200 metro Detroiters at any point in time.

Yet, various studies of adult literacy rates show that metro Detroit has an ill-equipped work force trying to find a foothold in an economy quickly leaving workers behind. Even jobs that don’t require reading skills now may be closed to an applicant who can’t fill out applications online or at placement agencies.

At Chelsea Milling, maker of Jiffy baking products, company president Howdy Holmes says that even though reading might not be required to perform some entry-level tasks, workers must have rudimentary reading and writing skills to fill out the proper paperwork at the placement agency Jiffy uses.

Without those papers, says Holmes, whose company has grown by 41 full-time and temporary workers in the past year: “We would not even know you exist.”

In the restaurant business, even entry-level positions require reading, says Keith Sirois, CEO of Warren-based Big Boy.

“A cook has to read the check and know what the guest wants. A dishwasher has to read the chemicals that have to be mixed,” he says.

Sirois says he has noticed that writing and communication skills have slipped over the years, even among professionals. Last month, a higher-level employee sent an e-mail about an issue being handled “eternally” rather than “internally.”

Sirois, who doesn’t have a college degree, is usually reading about three books at any given time. His reasoning: Books offer a “grasp of language and communication.”

Others may think he’s a stickler — after all, if the point comes across, who cares if grammar or spelling is garbled? — but Sirois says it’s like ordering a sandwich at one of Big Boy’s 138 restaurants, but getting one with the wrong condiments or one that’s not prepared well.

“You ordered a burger and you got a burger. It’s not what you wanted, but is it close enough? Is ‘eternally’ close enough to ‘internally’?” he asks. “What’s wrong with doing it right and asking that it be done right?”

Detroit real estate developer Kathy Makino, who renovates and operates rental apartment buildings in the city, sees firsthand the problem of adult reading deficiencies.

“I see it in our tenant base,” Makino says. “Asking them to fill out applications, that’s where I really see it.”

Peter Ruark, senior policy analyst with the nonprofit Michigan League for Human Services, says functional illiteracy imposes an economic burden on the state’s employers and businesses and on society as a whole.

“If people lack the skills that are needed to get anything other than a dead-end job, that’s not going to pull them out of poverty,” Ruark says. “And as people remain poor, that tends to strain safety-net programs. Any time we help low-income people increase their earnings, that helps the economy as a whole.”

The Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education estimated last year that if half the dropouts from the classes of 2010 in Detroit, Warren and Livonia were to have graduated instead, they would collectively earn $133 million more a year than they would without a diploma.

By the midpoint of their careers, they likely would spend as much as $375 million more on home purchases and $7.5 million more on new vehicles than they would without graduating. And they’d generate 900 new jobs, contribute $173 million more to the economy and — each year — contribute $14 million more in federal, state and local taxes.

Dreams of a better life

What Missy Buckner would really love to do is become a nurse, offering care and a smiling face in times of pain and need.

Instead, because she’s unable to read, Buckner, 56, has spent the past 18 years on the late shift, cleaning trash baskets and mopping floors in Oakland County government offices.

She likes things tidy and she moves fast, working room to room while she listens to jazz and news shows and talk radio.

But she could be so much more, she says, surveying the bank of computers and digital screens that must be dusted: “I want to read so bad, I can taste it,” she says.

Buckner, who is taking literacy classes through the Oakland Literacy Council, spent much of her childhood at Pontiac General Hospital because of frequent seizures. By seventh grade, she was so far behind in school that she was placed in special-education classes.

“I’d tell my teacher, ‘I don’t know this word,’ and she’d say, ‘Go look it up in the dictionary.’ Well, if you don’t know the word, how do you look it up in the dictionary?”

Then life got in the way of learning. She raised five boys, often held two jobs and helped with grandkids.

Catherine Pace of Detroit also knows the economic burden that low reading skills place on a job-seeker like herself.

“You used to just fill out the application and get a job,” says Pace, 57, a laid-off auto worker. “But now, they want you to take all these different tests. I’ve been testing, but I haven’t been able to get a job because of my low skills.”

Born in Alabama and a graduate of high school in Ohio, Pace worked for 10 years with one auto supplier before being laid off, then worked three years with another before her second layoff. She has been out of work now for two years. That makes her one of about a half-million Michiganders unemployed as the state struggles to emerge from the Great Recession.

To boost her chances of finding a job, Pace has been working on her reading and spelling skills with a tutor at the Dominican Literacy Center for a year. She hopes to take college courses eventually.

Cycle costs everyone

Overall, in the U.S., 63 million people older than 16 don’t read well enough to understand a newspaper story written at the eighth-grade level, according to the national advocacy group ProLiteracy.

And that costs the U.S. $225 billion or more each year in workplace nonproductivity, crime and lost tax revenue because of unemployment, according to an analysis of the NAAL results.

Peter Muennig slices the costs of low literacy another way.

The assistant professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health knew the odds that a person would rely on Medicaid, the federal insurance program for poor people, would decrease with education. But when he looked at one year’s worth of high school dropouts, he concluded that if they had obtained diplomas instead, the U.S. would save $17 billion in Medicaid costs over their lifetimes.

That’s $750 million in Michigan alone, Muennig concluded.

It’s not just the reliance on public health care. People with low literacy levels cost taxpayers, insurers and the health system more each time they go to the doctor.

That’s because people with a lower education level tend to be uninsured or under-insured and, in turn, get less preventive care. They may skip prescriptions that keep chronic conditions in check. And their acute problems are often diagnosed in the late stages, when medical interventions are expensive.

“Someone who can’t read a prescription drug label administers too much medication to their child and … they end up back in the hospital needing expensive services. Someone who can’t read insurance forms or navigate the bureaucracy to find a primary doctor shows up in the ER, and that’s double or triple (the) cost to the system,” says David Harvey, president and CEO of Syracuse-based ProLiteracy.

Amy Amador, head of Mercy Education Project in Detroit, which tutors about 150 women each year, remembers the words of one program graduate who had been a caregiver for her diabetic mother, but had never been able to read medical information or even the labels on cans of soup she opened for her.

“She said, ‘Now I’m not scared I’m going to kill my mother,” Amador says.

Better reading helps Michigan

By improving workers’ skills and moving them through a pipeline of increasingly higher-skilled, higher-paying jobs, Michigan will shave its costs in social services and public health care, economic development officials say.

That means not only training today’s young students for tomorrow’s economy, but also boosting the skills of today’s workers, says Amy Cell, a senior vice president of talent enhancement at the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

A custodian like Buckner, for example, ratchets up her skills to move into a nursing job. In turn, someone without a job will take her place at the mop bucket while they work to improve their skills to move forward as well, Cell says.

Boosting an entire economy, Cell says, requires the state to “move people through a continuum.”

In fact, the ability to read may add years to a life, according to researcher Mitchell Wong at the University of California, Los Angeles, who estimates that high school graduates live six to nine years longer than dropouts.

In addition to being able to navigate health information and complex bureaucracies better, literacy offers intangible benefits.

“People with a good job and long-living friends tend to see their future life as having a lot of worth, and they try to protect that,” Muennig says.

That’s what keeps folks like Amador at her job at Mercy. Amador says it costs about $5,000 to tutor a woman for a year, but that it increases the woman’s literacy level by two or more grades.

Last year, 19 Mercy students took the GED test — Mercy covered their costs. All passed, boosting their odds of a better job and a better life, Amador says.

“You think about what it costs to send an executive to training for a week, and you realize that for the same amount of money, we can transform a woman’s life,” she says.

Contact Robin Erb: 313-222-2708 or rerb@freepress.com