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Restart the Economy by Stopping Illiteracy

The silver bullet for rebuilding our business climate, reducing crime, and restoring employment is as simple as ABC. It's time for bipartisan action to end the crisis of illiteracy.
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The silver bullet for rebuilding our business climate, reducing crime, and restoring employment is as simple as ABC. It's time for bipartisan action to end the crisis of illiteracy.

If the absence of basic adult reading skills sounds like a problem of the past, consider the statistics: 47 percent of adults in Detroit are, according to a 2011 study by the Detroit Regional Workforce Fund, "functionally illiterate." This means that nearly half of adults lack the reading and writing skills to understand or complete a newspaper article, job advertisement, or bank statement.

This is not only debilitating for individuals and families. It's devastating for our entire region. Without attaining high levels of literacy, we cannot attract and keep high-quality employers that pay good wages. Without ensuring that people have the basic skills they need to succeed in the workplace, we cannot overcome our problems with crime. It should come as no surprise that 56 percent of United States adults in prison or jail in 2008 were deemed to have "very low literacy skills" according to the National Commission on Adult Literacy.

We need to take on the root causes of this crisis. A recent report in Stanford magazine shows that schools serving needier families have significantly lower average scores on literacy tests. This means that young people attending these largely underfunded schools face far dimmer job prospects and far higher chances of incarceration than their wealthier peers. Those who lose hope and end up in prison will not receive a second chance: our corrections system fails to teach or encourage crucial skills like reading.

It's time for a change.

This month, I teamed up with Republican Congressman Tim Scott, a fellow African-American member of the U.S. House of Representatives, to introduce a bipartisan resolution for action on illiteracy. While we represent different regions, different parties, and different political philosophies, we agree that illiteracy is an urgent crisis, which disproportionately affects the lives of African-American and Hispanic men. We call on the federal government, private businesses, and citizens' groups to work together to reach the goal of reducing illiteracy by 50 percent among minority groups and 25 percent nationally over the next decade.

There are clear ways we can achieve these goals. First, rather than reducing school hours and facilities due to budget cuts, we must keep our schools open later and reopen libraries to serve students who are struggling to read. Second, we should boost funding for community-based organizations like Reading Works and ProLiteracy Detroit that provide adult literacy training. Such programs are understaffed and oversubscribed, with 74 percent of organizations nationally maintaining waiting lists. Third, we should reform our prisons to give inmates the tools they need to become successful members of the workforce. We can start to do this by providing more resources to teach literacy in prisons and by rewarding inmates who read more.

Of the countless proposals for improving public safety and restoring the economy, there's only one sure bet: giving people the basic skills they need to take responsibility for their lives and achieve their dreams.

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