How Adult Literacy Programs Stimulate the Economy

image from the National Coalition for Literacy

A new school year is upon us, and as usual nearly all of the focus is on K through 12. As a former high school teacher, I value the attention on young learners that September brings. After all, investing in the future by investing in the education of children and young adults is a no-brainer. But in times of economic distress, investing in the present is also essential. One of the most overlooked opportunities for stimulating the economy is in adult education. As current (rather than future) members of the labor force, adult learners immediately use the skills they acquire in the classroom on the job and, thereby, directly and quickly improve business productivity. And, in the U.S., the skill that is the gateway to almost all other skills is, of course, literacy in English.

Many of the more than 2.5 million adult literacy students in the U.S. are immigrants, and the vast majority are highly motivated to learn English and use it every day. I know that because I now teach at two adult education centers in Massachusetts. In fact, shortly after the economic crisis beset us in late 2008, I quit my full-time job in publishing to return part-time to teaching. My decision to focus specifically on adult education was grounded in a firm conviction that this is where I would have the greatest and most immediate impact. And the reality I found in the classroom has exceeded my expectations. My students are champing at the bit to learn everything they can and to explore all the ways they can apply their classroom experiences to the real world. Together, they and I are effecting change.

When people think about adult education, even those who believe in the cause of funding literacy programs, they often see the issue in charitable terms — helping disadvantaged people who deserve a chance. Well-intended as that impulse is, this endeavor isn’t merely about stemming the flow from hearts that bleed for the needy. Funding and publicizing adult literacy programs is practical, plain and simple. It’s in the acute economic interest of local communities, states, and the nation as a whole. Making that point in clear, convincing terms will help to expand the pool of people who are interested in investing in adult literacy.

There’s no doubt that teaching students to speak, read, and write effectively in English takes time. But we don’t need to wait until adults finish a program, or earn a certificate or a diploma, before we see the benefits. These folks walk out of classrooms every day and put their newly acquired skills right to work. And many of them bring their education home to their children (my students frequently ask for extra handouts so that they can use them with their kids). That twofold, mutually reinforcing investment — in the parent now and in her child for the future — makes the concept of “trickle down” a concrete reality, not an economist’s fantasy. Let’s face that hard fact, and put our money where our mouth is. Then we all can reap the rewards together.

For more information about how you can help adult literacy programs fulfill their mission, visit the websites of the Cambridge Community Learning Center and the Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences.

Your Livelihood Is Subsidized — by Immigrants

Another midterm election season has begun, and with it another wave of scapegoating immigrants for the ills that burden us. It’s practically a staple of American politics every fourth spring and summer, a perfect setup for the fall. This year the focus is an Arizona immigration law that soon will allow police in that state to accost, and demand proof of citizenship from, people they suspect are in the U.S. illegally. Because, surely, those confrontations will unburden Arizona of its problems and make it a much more pleasant place to be.

Last time around, in 2006, the big issue was an amnesty provision of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act. Had the bill become law, it would have permitted immigrants who were in the U.S. illegally for more than five years to apply for citizenship after paying fines and back taxes. Critics of the legislation won that debate in part by, once again, painting immigrants as a “burden on the system.” At the time, National Public Radio broadcast a 3-minute essay by journalist Richard Rodriguez in which he, unassumingly and poetically, undercut that specious argument by simply thanking immigrants for the long list of things they do for us as a nation every day, at an extremely low cost. Rodriguez’s naming of these deeds, one by one, was chilling — and worth a listen even these four years later.

My immigrant students work in jobs similar to those Rodriguez listed in his 2006 radio piece. They lift hospital patients out of their beds and clean their bodies; load and unload chicken legs, beef tenderloin, and Kashi GoLean from the backs of trucks; scrub down homes and offices and hotel rooms and the cages of lab rats; and click their heels and smile at the people they serve on hand and foot, day and night. And they do it, quickly and efficiently, for pay that most people reading this blog would never consider accepting for such self-effacing work, perhaps for any work at all. In short, their labor subsidizes our lifestyles. While we work for ourselves, they in effect work for us, all the while demanding little for what they do. The economy in general — and your livelihood in particular — rests on their backs, literally. Yet their labor goes largely unseen — and when it is noticed, unappreciated.

In the little free time that these immigrants have, many attend school to learn the English language; the archaic English system of measurement that we refuse to discard in favor of more-sensible meters and liters, which they already know; and the contradictions of our culture and politics, which insult them in more ways than you can imagine. It’s an enormous amount for anyone to absorb, and especially hard for students like one I’ll call Teresa, who works the overnight shift in a hospital, then comes to my math class at 9 AM, and finally returns home to care for her children and an aging father. When I asked Teresa when she sleeps, she said, “On the bus sometimes.”

The schools that serve students like Teresa tend to operate on shoestring budgets. Most are staffed by highly skilled but undercompensated teachers who have made this work a vocation as they try to earn a real living on the side — and who often don’t get any pay for up to half the hours they spend at school. All this unrecognized labor is a continuous stimulus for the national economy, as it makes the grossly underpaid immigrant workforce even more productive. The effect is to dramatically reduce, not increase, the country’s economic burdens.

Critics, of course, point to the small percentage of immigrants who commit crimes or who game the system. After all, naysayers can always find isolated counterexamples. But I can tell them, from the front lines, that on balance they are getting much more for their dollars — no, their pennies — than they ever would suspect. The number of immigrants, most of them here legally (but, yes, some illegally), who diligently do our dirty work, in the literal sense of that phrase, is staggering. And, no, many of them will not be counted by the U.S. Census; they exist — and they work — nonetheless.

Go ahead, Arizona, apprehend that “burden” you see on the public street. Maybe you’ll actually lock up and deport one of the dregs who drag us down. But it’s much more likely that you’ll burden yourself and the rest of us by handcuffing the single biggest subsidy of our precarious economy. For every physical arrest that you make, you effectively demoralize and disable thousands of hardworking immigrants who look on and imagine themselves in your shackles. Keep arresting productivity in its tracks like that and you will burden our entire nation so that it falls, quickly and efficiently, to its knees.