It used to be that illiteracy was a problem that people swept under the rug. It was a problem for the poor and uneducated.
Then people started to tally the costs. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the inability to read costs the United States billions of dollars a year. The NCES and the U.S. Census figure that roughly a third of Americans cannot read. That third, as a result, makes less money, suffers from preventable health conditions that, if treated, would save on later healthcare costs, and spends more time in prison.
Complicating matters is a shaky economy. Since the economy tanked in 2008, hiring has been slow and small business and entrepreneurship have become standard means of filling the employment gap. This could, according to Irwin Kirsch, the director of the Center for Global Assessment at Educational Testing Service in Ewing, translate into a lack of certain jobs in the coming decades — particularly the kinds of jobs illiterate adults are able to get.
This is the essence of what Kirsch calls “America’s Perfect Storm,” the title of a major report written by Kirsch and colleagues Henry Braun and Kentaro Yamamoto and Andrew Sum of Northeastern University. Kirsch will present his conclusions on Thursday, September 15, at 11:30 a.m. at the Trenton Country Club. Cost: $65. Visit firstname.lastname@example.org or call 609-689-9960.
Kirsch earned his Ph.D. in educational measurement from the University of Delaware in 1982, and has been with ETS since 1984. He is behind most of ETS’s large-scale literacy assessments and helped establish the first-ever comparative international assessment of adult literacy. He was named a distinguished presidential appointee under Bill Clinton in 1999.
The gap widens. According to Kirsch, there is not likely to be a shortage of low-end jobs, but the problem is that these jobs are not likely to be long-term. Nor are they likely to offer any benefits. And as more Americans continue honing their education and are becoming more personally involved with financial planning aspects of their lives (such as retirement or healthcare plans), the gap between the haves and have-nots will expand.
“Data over the last 25 years or so show that there is a widening wage and income gap between low and high-skilled workers,” according to Kirsch. “The challenge will not be finding employment; it will be finding employment that provides adequate wages and long-term opportunities.”
An obvious point is that there always has been a large gap between the haves and have-nots in America. But Kirsch says that what is different today is “the growing inequality among large segments of our population with respect to wages, income, and wealth.” According to the Economic Policy Institute, CEOs in 1979 earned 35 times more than the average American worker. By 2005, this gap widened to 262 times as much. In 1980 the richest 20 percent of Americans earned about 44 percent of all income, and by 2002, their share had grown to 50 percent.
“Income inequality is important not only because it limits our economic potential, but also the quality of our democracy,” Kirsch says. The report cites Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman, who once wrote: “Economic growth is not merely the enabler of higher consumption; it is in many ways the wellspring from which democracy and civil society flow.”
Storm factors. “America’s Perfect Storm,” a phrase taken from Sebastian Junger’s best-seller about the confluence of three immense and dangerous weather systems, refers to a similar confluence of three major problems facing the adult population over the next 20 years. First is inadequate literacy and numeracy among students in standardized tests, as well as in adults.
Second is the continuing evolution of the economy and the nation’s job structure. As the economy finds its new directions, higher levels of literacy and numeracy will be necessary to stay competitive in the job market. Third is an ongoing shift in demographics — i.e., a significant change in immigrant populations, in size and in make-up. As these factors merge, Kirsch suggests, the result could “transform the American dream into an American tragedy.”
Immigration. Immigration could be the touchiest component of the impending storm. As long as there has been a United States, there have been immigrants, and as long as there have been immigrants, there have been calls to limit immigration. The latest round of anti-immigration focuses on the influx from Asia and south of the border.
This shift from European immigrants to Asian and Hispanic immigrants coincides with a large increase in immigrant populations in the country. During the 1980s, according to Kirsch, total international migration accounted for 21 percent of America’s population growth. By the 1990s, it comprised 31 percent, and is expected to account for more than half of U.S. population growth between 2000 and 2015. The Hispanic population alone is projected to grow from 14 to 20 percent by 2030.
Why this is important has to do with the education and literacy levels today’s immigrants bring with them, Kirsch says.
While roughly 28 percent of immigrating adults between 2000 and 2004 came to the U.S. with at least a bachelor’s degree, roughly 34 percent came without a high school diploma. And among this 34 percent, 80 percent did not speak, read, or write English functionally.
Traditionally, most immigrants to the U.S. — those from Germany, Russia, Eastern Europe, and Italy — did not speak English upon arrival either. But 100 years ago immigrants had an advantage that no longer exists to any significant degree, says Kirsch.
“In the past, jobs in the manufacturing sector provided those with moderate levels of education and skills good wages, long-term employment, health benefits, training, pensions, and more,” he states. “These jobs are going away. Today, manufacturing accounts for only about 10 percent of the jobs in the United States, compared with more than 30 percent in the 1950s.”
And as work becomes more technologically dependent and more diversified, anyone not able to keep up will have almost nowhere to turn.
The answer. The obvious place to start fixing the problem, Kirsch states, is boosting the literacy levels of the population as a whole. This, he says, will help reduce the skills gaps among key population segments.
“We must also recognize the value of family and community involvement, and we must understand the importance of economic growth not only to our standard of living but to the quality of our democracy,” he says. “We should make it a national priority to find ways of equipping adults with the ability to perform work that is highly valued in the marketplace and that contributes to our global competitiveness.”
Kirsch says that ETS’s part in the fix has started with “America’s Perfect Storm.” Kirsch has taken the message on the road, to business leaders and chambers of commerce, making sure that everyone understands why literacy is so important and why simply doing things like closing off the borders will not solve the problem.