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Adult Literacy and Economic Development: Making Sustainable Economic Development a Reality

The Strengths of a region are based on to what extent the region's adults are literate. The Challenge is providing proficient programs to improve the region's adult literacy.

Many of the key municipalities in the lower Mon Valley area in the Greater Pittsburgh Region have significant poverty levels ranging from 25% to 40% with accompanying low adult literacy levels over the last 25 to 40 years - and it is worsening (see the diagram immediately below for representative examples). The information contained in the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute of Politics’ policy briefing, “Poverty: Beyond the Urban Core,” that details how poverty is increasing and also creeping into suburban areas is very sobering and should issue a call to action for all of us. Poverty anywhere in a region has a negative ripple effect throughout the region – even the more affluent municipalities – in the form of higher taxes, elevated health care costs, and issues related to crime and incarceration. With all the development opportunities being planned, they seem to be best sustained with all adults in the region being best positioned to successfully compete for the jobs.


Poverty Rtes
Mon Valley Municipalities Elevated Poverty Rates. SOURCE: Census Reporter

The diagram to the left shows 19 impoverished communities in the Mon Valley and each of them has greater than or equal to 20 percent poverty levels. Moreover, with each of these compromised and impoverished communities, their associated school districts experience low performance results that puts most of them in the bottom 20% of our state’s school districts for student academic achievement (see below). For example, on average as shown in the diagram, these representative school districts have an average of 79% graduation rate while their students’ achievements are, on average, 39% reading proficiency and 23% math proficiency.

School Districts
Representative School Districts Associated with Elevated Poverty Municipalities *SOURCE: Public School Review

The jobs from the high tech businesses are both already in the Pittsburgh area with more projected to follow will offer more adults residing in each of the Greater Pittsburgh Region’s municipalities to increase their quality of life, provide an improvement in overall regional literacy, seek improvement in the proportion of adults and families living in poverty, increase our tax base, increased adults’ ability to build our community capacity (and be a world leader), increased number of adults to be community leaders, and parents becoming more proficient at being their children’s primary teacher.

The U.S. Department of Labor showed that adults with low literacy skills are twice as likely to be unemployed, three times as likely to be in poverty, four times as likely to be in poor health, and eight times as likely to be incarcerated. Further, adults living in poverty are twice as likely to suffer from depression. Each of these issues negatively affect the entire region regardless of the poverty and adult literacy rates. Further, by 2024, 80% of job openings will require adults to have middle skills and higher for gainful employment. Especially here in the Greater Pittsburgh Region, we need to collaborate to support our region's planners’ and business leaders’ efforts for increasing our economic expansion.


At some point, we need to embrace that our region’s adults, families, and neighborhoods deserve to have a higher quality of life. We, as a region, need to address and stop the inter-generational cycle of poverty and low adult literacy. Inter-generational cycle and poverty needs to be address through adult and community literacy research and programs. Nothing has been sustained since the collapse of the steel industry. We need to move beyond that and establish sustainable economic expansion from the planners and developers efforts regarding bringing high tech business to the region. And that will only be made possible by improving our region’s adults’ literacy and skills such that they become lifelong learners. I get the environmental argument and we can keep that in the forefront of our development. However, it is crucial for all of us to focus on people’s needs to include their health, prosperity, and their ability to engage in community and environmental issues. This will benefit the entire Greater Pittsburgh Region.

SOURCES: Census Reporter, Public School Review, the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, the Pew Foundation, Allegheny County Municipal Tax Millage, University of Pittsburgh, U.S. Department of Labor, Coalition on Adult Basic Education.



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