The Reading Barrier
City should lead in addressing adult literacy
Ron Reney reads at roughly a fourth-grade level. He makes ends meet by working two $11-an-hour jobs, washing dishes and working in a warehouse. But the finances got more complicated in late May when he and his girlfriend welcomed a baby girl into their family.
Between those long hours at work and time with his newborn, Reney is taking classes to improve his reading and writing skills. It’s worth the work, he says, if it can help pull him out of dead-end jobs.
Reney, 27, is one of the many faces of the working poor in Dallas, a hard worker whose poor language skills hinder his ability to move upward economically. Friends and family have helped keep him afloat, but “I want to make it on my own,” he says.
Dallas has more than 80,000 residents who, despite working full or part time, are in poverty — and poor language skills is one of the reasons. By 2030, experts predict that about 1 million Dallas County residents, nearly one-third of the population, will not be literate in English.
A significant number are people are like Ron, native English speakers who lack the critical reading and writing skills required to compete for better-paying jobs. But Dallas’ challenge is exacerbated by the large number of non-native English speakers. With Dallas attracting more and more immigrants, the language barrier is also a major barrier to advancement.
About 25 percent of Dallas residents are foreign-born; at least 44 percent speak a language other than English at home. Spanish is the predominant language, but by far not the only one — at least 65 other languages are spoken here.
You don’t have to be a social scientist to recognize the ripple effect on families and communities. Businesses need English-literate workers. Jobs that don’t require basic language skills are unlikely to pay anywhere near a wage that can support a family. A person who struggles with English also is more likely to have a brush with the corrections system, rely heavily on social services and suffer serious physical or mental health problems. And their children are more likely to face similar challenges, creating yet another generation in crisis.
Lisa Hembry, president of Literacy Instruction for Texas, which runs the adult literacy program that Reney attends, says fixing language literacy challenges in Dallas will require an intensive intervention with resources from the city and nonprofits in a coordinated strategy that does not exist now. Adult literacy and ESL programs are underfunded, uneven in quality and can be difficult to track down.
Plus, there is a Catch-22 for the working poor. Those with poor language skills might get by with a low-wage job when the economy is strong but will find themselves unemployable and competing against better-skilled, underemployed workers in a recession.
The city of Dallas should take the lead to become a clearinghouse for ESL and adult literacy classes, helping increase the awareness of options so people know where to turn for help. The city also should encourage, even incentivize, corporations to bring ESL and adult literacy programs to job locations.
Says Hembry: “Once a person learns how to read well, life changes for them. As we raise up the least in our community, we raise up everybody.”
Coming tomorrow: Solutions
Ron Reney, 27, takes a class at Literacy Instruction for Texas at CitySquare Opportunity Center in Dallas. He’s working to improve his reading skills so he can get a better job to support his family.