Many of the city’s biggest disparities may be linked to literacy

Many of the disparities Madison struggles with today are directly addressed by the work of the Literacy Network.

The achievement gap, health disparities, and differing rates of employment often are connected to issues of low literacy in adult communities.

The last assessment of literacy in Dane County, in 2003, estimated that one in seven adults in Dane County struggled with low literacy.

The Literacy Network is a local organization that provides classes and tutoring programs to improve reading, writing and speaking skills. They break low literacy adults into two categories: English language learners, who account for about two-thirds of low literacy adults, and basic education learners. The organization also said there are indications that the numbers are now worse than they were in 2003.

An adult learner receives tutoring at the Literacy Center. (Literacy Center)An adult learner receives tutoring at the Literacy Center. (Literacy Center)

Low literacy translates to a sixth-grade reading level or below, according to Jeff Burkhart, executive director of the Literacy Network. It can make basic tasks like filling out a job application or accurately reading a prescription label a struggle.

“Our education system has failed them,” Burkhart said. “I have met many people who grew up and went to school here who passed on, and who are reading at a second or third grade level. It’s tragic.”

Students with undiagnosed learning disabilities are often the victims of this system, Burkhart said. They may have been embarrassed because of their low reading skills and then acted out as a defense mechanism, which led teachers to believe the student had a behavioral problem rather than a learning problem.

While the Madison Metropolitan School District has vowed to focus on ensuring students are literate when they graduate, many adults with low literacy levels today grew up in homes with parents of low literacy, creating a cycle that the Literacy Network wants to break.

Low literacy can be very damaging to self-confidence, especially for illiterate parents who cannot help their children with their schoolwork. This disrupts the traditional parent-child dynamic, Burkhart said. When children realize their parent cannot help them, they may start to see their parent as inadequate.

“I think the parents are often feeling that their role as a parent is compromised,” Burkhart said.

Burkhart noted that this cycle disproportionately affects the African-American community in Dane County and that illiteracy is a significant obstacle to employment and meaningful work. According to the 2013 Race to Equity, the unemployment rate for African-Americans in Dane County was 25 percent, compared to just five percent for whites.  

“Literacy is foundational to employees earning family-sustaining wages,” said Trena Anderson. Anderson is a regional consultant for Wisconsin Literacy, a statewide coalition of over 70 literacy support organizations.

Literacy education also can bring confidence and hope into an otherwise dark time, Burkhart said.  

Burkhart told the story of a woman who, after the death of her alcoholic boyfriend, was struggling with suicidal thoughts.

A friend told her, “We’re going to find something that will help you find a reason to live and move forward in your life.”

The pair looked across the street from the woman’s house, and there was Literacy Network. She enrolled, and gained not only confidence but also the first job she’d had in 20 years.

The friend who had encouraged her later told Burkhart that he thought the Literacy Network saved her life.

Not everyone walking into a literacy program comes from such extreme circumstances, but the Literacy Network often witnesses this transition from low self-worth to increased confidence and opportunities.

Literacy education also can improve physical health.

Paul Smith, associate professor in the department of family medicine at University of Wisconsin–Madison, said research shows literacy is the strongest predictor of health. One study showed that smoking was the only predictor for health stronger than literacy. This does not mean that low literacy necessarily causes poor health but rather that there is a strong association between the two factors.

Low literacy does affect health in direct ways, Smith said. Those with low literacy can experience near-constant anxiety that they may be missing out on crucial information and are less likely to use preventive services.

“If you can’t read well, it’s really hard to function in our society, and that affects health,” Smith said.