The head of a literacy nonprofit on how to ensure disadvantaged Philadelphians can read, do math and use a computer—for their prosperity, and all of ours
Gov. Tom Wolf’s recently introduced final budget for Pennsylvania prioritized investment in education more than any budget in recent memory. He proposed a $1.55 billion increase in basic education funding—including $300 million for the Level Up initiative, which would go to the state’s neediest school districts—as well as $500,000 for adult and family literacy. This is an important start.
But as our state legislature debates education funding in budget hearings this week, they must remember that tackling the opportunity gap requires efforts from every angle. And literacy is the foundation upon which opportunity is built.
Literacy is more than just the ability to read and write—it’s being able to think critically and navigate a complicated world. However, the United States ranks 23rd in international reading assessments, behind Sweden, Poland and Estonia.
The National Center for Education Statistics also estimates that 13 percent of Americans—and a whopping 22 percent of Philadelphians—cannot read, write, or do math above a third-grade level. For adults, this can lead to a missing sense of belonging and worth, and it leads to structural inequities that inhibit both personal growth as well as broader economic prosperity.
Our literacy divide is at the root of every opportunity gap—from the digital divide to housing insecurity to workforce readiness. These challenges will all remain intractable unless we conquer reading and comprehension, writing and math, digital literacy and workplace skills.
There is much at stake here. According to a paper by Jonathan Rothwell, a fellow at the Brookings Institute, bringing all adults in America to a 6th-grade reading level would increase our national economy by $2.2 trillion annually.
Pennsylvania lacks the digitally skilled workers businesses want to hire. In 2019, the National Skills Coalition estimated that 53 percent of job openings require more than a high school education, but less than a four-year college degree. However, only 42 percent of Pennsylvanians are qualified to apply for those jobs. That 11-point gap cannot be filled if our neighbors don’t have the basic skills required to apply.
Compounding the problem is a recent City of Philadelphia plan that showed a stubborn digital divide keeps 16 percent of Philadelphians offline. The reasons for this are myriad and complex, but a lack of consistent reading comprehension makes it nearly impossible for those without sufficient literacy skills to access the internet and the pathways to prosperity that it provides.
Over the past two years of the pandemic, we’ve found new opportunities to approach many of these problems from different angles. For example, we’re closer to closing the digital divide than ever before, given unique public/private partnerships like PHLConnectED, which provides free internet to pre-K-12 households in Philadelphia, and the Biden administration’s new Affordable Connectivity Program, which offers low-income families a voucher for $30 a month to buy low-cost internet service, like Comcast’s Internet Essentials program.
But even when the internet is essentially free, our literacy gap will mean that opportunity remains out of reach for too many. Closing the divide—teaching everyone to read, do math, and use a computer—will put people on a fast track to greater prosperity not only for themselves, but for their children and families. The ripple effect will improve our city and our region’s economy as well.
This is an opportunity for our city and our nation, and as budget hearings continue, Harrisburg should prioritize Pennsylvania’s students. But even if every dollar in Gov. Wolf’s budget is approved, the gaps that separate us will persist. Without increasing literacy for all, we will remain a disconnected country where some divides are simply too wide to ever bridge.