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Nearly One-Quarter of Philadelphia’s Adult Population Lacks Basic Literacy

15 December 2015
Commission in the News

In  part 2 of our ‘America left behind’ series, Al Jazeera explores the vicious cycle of poverty and lack of education

By Kate Kilpatrick
December 15, 2015

At the end of this year the Millennium Development Goals, targets set by the United Nations in 2000 for developing countries, will expire. In this project, we examine how some communities in the United States measure up against those goals. We have applied each one to the U.S. by looking at an indicator used to measure a country’s development success and interpreting it for a community in America. The eight goals are: eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality and empower women, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, combat HIV/AIDS and other diseases, ensure environmental sustainability, and develop a global partnership for development. An indicator of the second goal is the literacy rate of 15-to-24-year-olds. In this piece, we look at how lacking basic literacy affects adults in Philadelphia.



PHILADELPHIA — Marilyn Cifuentes wants to work in accounting, but she needs to learn fractions first.

Cifuentes, 35, the mother of two boys, 10 and 11, dropped out of high school in the 10th grade to help raise her nephew. Two decades later, she’s back in school, studying for her GED. Her reading and math skills are at a fourth- or fifth-grade level — the same grades her two sons are in.

“My kids, they say I can do it — ‘Mom, it’s so easy,’” said Cifuentes, who lives in Kensington, a high-poverty neighborhood in Philadelphia.

In 2010, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter decried the city’s “serious literacy crisis.” A 2003 survey found that 22 percent of people over 16 in Philly lack basic literacy skills, with scores below basic or language barriers preventing testing in English. Adults who test below basic range from being completely nonliterate to being able to follow short, simple instructions (such as what is permitted to drink before a medical test) to locating and adding simple numbers (such as for filling out a bank deposit slip), but are unable to complete basic tasks such as using a TV guide to determine what programs are on at a given time or comparing ticket prices for two events.

According to a 2009 report from the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board, more than half of Philadelphia adults don’t have the literacy and work skills necessary to “compete in our knowledge-based economy or to successfully complete a postsecondary degree.”

While an eighth-grade education was once sufficient to land a manufacturing job in the city, that’s often no longer the case.

Read more of part 2 of Al Jazeera’s  ‘America left behind’ series, here

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