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Q&A: Kevin G. Smith on literacy

Kevin G. Smith is executive director and chief operating officer of Literacy New York, which is comprised of 43 affiliates through New York State providing a wide range of adult literacy education programs and services. He discussed the most recent national literacy report.

Q: What is the literacy rate in Buffalo and Erie County and how does that compare nationwide?

A: New York State performed below the nation in all categories of measurement indicated by the National Assessment of Adult Literacy report. The rates in Buffalo and Erie County remain relatively unchanged from the 1992 study. Erie County has approximately 19 percent (135,204 over age 18) of the population at a below basic literacy level while Buffalo is at 30 percent (63,274 over age 18). As with most counties with large urban centers, the issue is concentrated, but not exclusive, to the city.

Q: How do you view the national assessment of adult literacy?

A: The study, like its predecessor completed in 1992, assessed literacy in three categories: prose (e.g. a book), document (e.g. a contract) and quantitative (e.g. calculating a tip or loan rate) competency. In doing so, it recognized the broad types of literacy people perform every day. We consider this to be an important distinction in helping everyone to understand what we mean by literacy and what people can or cannot do as a result of their skill level.

Q: What is the economic impact of literacy, here and across the nation?

A: Years ago, the U.S. Commerce Department estimated the national productivity losses to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. We need to consider not just the cost of economic loss due to inefficient productivity but also the economic costs related to health care, social services and crime. More often than not, individuals with limited language or literacy skills need more support from the government and community and are more likely to engage in illegal activities to deal with their frustrations and make ends meet. The cost here and nationally is inestimable. Clearly, low literacy skills are a causal barrier to people having full access to personal, social and economic participation.

Q: How do you view funding for New York on a state and national level?

A: In a word, insufficient. The report indicates that 30 million people in the United States are functioning below basic levels of literacy. The U.S. primary program to help these folks build their skills totals $571 million. That is an average $10.7 million per state and an investment of less than $20 per person. A significant number of the 63 million people considered by the study to be at a basic level may also need service.

New York State has been one of the better contributors to the effort to provide service for adults with low literacy skills and limited language ability. There is approximately $135 million in state and federal funds available for this purpose. Unfortunately, our needs in New York are greater than in the rest of the nation and the funding is inequitably distributed, resulting in uneven service.

Q: How do you attract volunteers?

A: Our volunteer sector of the adult education system in New York and the nation recruits volunteers through a variety of low-key marketing strategies. I say low key because we can't afford to pay for television ads. Typically, people hear about our work and how they can become involved several times before they sign up. I hope that for many reading this it will be the catalyst to get involved. (Interested people can reach Literacy Volunteers at 716-876-8991; www.literacybuffalo.org.

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