How Literacy Is Taking People From Poverty to Pension

Workplace training can mean a life-changing second chance. #projectliteracy

Workplace literacy can mean the difference between being homeless and climbing the career ladder. Image via Flickr user Flazingo Photos (cc).

To meet Arthur Welch today, one might assume the 54-year-old bus driver has lived an ordinary life. But only recently did the veteran start putting together the pieces that make it “ordinary”—earlier this year Welch had a suspended license and no job. The Atlanta native grew up in one of the city’s crime-ridden Westside neighborhoods, but graduated from high school with a clean record. “I just managed to stay out of trouble,” he says, adding that most of his peers did not.

But after getting his diploma, Welch did not continue his education and instead enlisted in the military. Afterward, he struggled to find living-wage work and accumulated debt from child support he owed for his four children. He sought help, and found it at Goodwill, the thrift shop where many Americans donate clothes and home goods. A transitional employment program allowed Welch to learn basic job skills—résumé writing, interviewing tactics, communication do’s and don’ts—and work alongside professionals in retail shops for general training.

From the beginning, says Goodwill’s Elaine Armstrong, Welch had his eye on driving one of Atlanta’s public transportation buses. Through the help of Goodwill’s placement services, Welch accomplished his goal and now has a new plan: “In 10 years, I’ll be fully vested,” he says. In just a matter of months, Welch went from jobless and indebted to crafting a retirement plan that suits his needs.

With one of the highest poverty rates in the United States, Georgia has an unemployment rate of roughly 6 percent. Programs like Goodwill’s, which supplement lower levels of education with classes that teach workplace literacy and computer skills, can mean the difference between being homeless and climbing the career ladder.

Angelee Berry teaches workplace literacy in the same area where Arthur Welch was raised. “It’s a community where there’s a low income level [and] the quality of the school options are not the best,” she says. She explains that many of her students in programs run by local agency Literacy Action may have completed high school, but they “just had a poor academic experience.” Some say they were never taught how to do long division, use units of measurement, or read a ruler.

Beyond lacking workplace literacy—the basic literacy and numeracy skills needed for many jobs—her students come from a neighborhood where, like many across the United States, she says, “there’s definitely substance abuse and high crime rates, so people are involved in those activities in order to survive.” That reality, she says, means that some students are dropping out of school and selling drugs. “Or there’s addiction that is keeping them from being able to be gainfully employed.”

Given these realities, many see a very clear purpose in teaching workplace literacy. “We do this because it’s needed,” explains Gordon Ellis, director of employment at the Atlanta Center for Self Sufficiency. He adds, “because people make mistakes.” Ellis echoes Welch and Berry’s point that for those in low-income communities where crime is high, it’s easy to get into legal trouble, which then makes it more difficult to get a job that pays a living wage.

“There aren’t tons of employers that are willing to give second chances to people,” says Alicia Wilson, director of case management at the Central Outreach & Advocacy Center. Her organization is another provider of employment services for Atlanta’s underserved communities, and it offers access to computers for participants—an important service given the number of job applications that are available exclusively online. But before such second chances are offered, Wilson notes that “even if you were convicted of a minor felony years and years ago, you still have to check the box that you were convicted of a felony, and so that is a big barrier.”

Such barriers have been overcome through programs like Goodwill’s. Ralph Gibson is 60 years old and has been clean and sober for 28 months. For almost that long he has held a job that he secured through First Step Staffing, an employment services agency that helps individuals who have criminal backgrounds. Gibson has been putting his electrician and plumber certifications to use at interior construction jobs, and now has an interview lined up for a full-time job with benefits.

Berry, of Literacy Action, emphasizes the potential to leverage skills that people acquire through such programs. “It gives them credentials that they wouldn’t otherwise have—and opportunities for advancement and the establishment of a career in a particular field, as opposed to just a job.”

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The problem with American Sign Language (ASL) is that over 500,000 people in the U.S. use it, but the country has over 330 million people.

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Looking back, the year 1995 seems like such an innocent time. America was in the midst of its longest streak of peace and prosperity. September 11, 2001 was six years away, and the internet didn't seem like much more than a passing fad.

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According to a Pew Research study that year, only 32% of those who go online say they would miss it "a lot" if no longer available.

Imagine what those poll numbers would look like if the question was asked today.

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"Few see online activities as essential to them, and no single online feature, with the exception of E-Mail, is used with any regularity," the Pew article said. "Consumers have yet to begin purchasing goods and services online, and there is little indication that online news features are changing traditional news consumption patterns."

"Late Night" host David Letterman had Microsoft founder and, at that time the richest man in the world, on his show for an interview in '95 to discuss the "the big new thing."

During the interview Letterman chided Gates about the usefulness of the new technology, comparing it to radio and tape recorders.

Gates seems excited by the internet because it will soon allow people to listen to a baseball game on their computer. To which Letterman smugly replies, "Does radio ring a bell?" to laughter from the crowd.

But Gates presses Letterman saying that the new technology allows you to listen to the game "whenever you want," to which Letterman responds, "Do tape recorders ring a bell?"

Gates then tells Letterman he can keep up with the latest in his favorite hobbies such as cigar smoking or race cars through the internet. Letterman shuts him down saying that he reads about his interests in magazines.

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The discussion ends with the two laughing over meeting like-minded people in "troubled loner chat room on the internet."

The clip brings to mind a 1994 segment on "The Today Show" where host Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric have a similar discussion.

"What is internet anyway?" an exasperated Gumball asks. "What do you write to it like mail?"

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Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

The future generations will have to live on this Earth for years to come, and, not surprisingly, they're very concerned about the fate of our planet. We've seen a rise in youth activists, such as Greta Thunberg, who are raising awareness for climate change. A recent survey indicates that those efforts are working, as more and more Americans (especially young Americans) feel concerned about climate change.

A new CBS News poll found that 70% of Americans between 18 and 29 feel climate change is a crisis or a serious problem, while 58% of Americans over the age of 65 share those beliefs. Additionally, younger generations are more likely to feel like it's their personal responsibility to address climate change, as well as think that transitioning to 100% renewable energy is viable. Overall, 25% of Americans feel that climate change is a "crisis," and 35% feel it is a "serious problem." 10% of Americans said they think climate change is a minor problem, and 16% of Americans feel it is not a problem that worries them.

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