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Use This Release for New RO Heds and New Turnlines : Millions Suffer : Illiteracy: The Slide Continues

Times Staff Writer

When Paul, then a mechanic at a San Fernando Valley gas station, asked his longtime girlfriend, Patty, to marry him, he warned her that she would have to handle the household bills and make herself responsible for all the family’s business dealings.

Patty would also become an accomplice in Paul’s sophisticated ruse at avoiding discovery.

“I want you to know what you’re getting into,” Paul cautioned her, revealing his most shameful and best-kept secret, one he had shared with only a few friends in his lifetime. At 32, Paul could neither read nor write.

At job interviews or when buying a car, Paul would pretend to have forgotten his glasses, and Patty would fill out the applications.

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Read Birthday Cards

At birthday parties, she would stand over his shoulder and, with feigned curiosity, read the cards aloud as he opened gifts.

Sometimes he would call home in the middle of the day to ask her to spell a word. When he missed work, she would print the word sick on a slip of paper and place it in his lunch pail for him to copy onto his time card.

It was all part of a strategy that Paul calls “bluffing my way through life.”

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It is a way of life shared by millions of Americans labeled “functionally illiterate,” those unable to read and write well enough to function in a literate society. They cannot read a job notice, a ballot or a street sign. They cannot write a check or address an envelope.

Research Lacking

Definitions and degrees of illiteracy vary and precise statistics are impossible to come by. Research in the field is lacking, with most estimates based on a decade-old study. But the most commonly used figure pegs the number of functionally illiterate adults at 27 million nationally. An additional 45 million adults, categorized as marginally literate, cannot read a newspaper or instructions on a bottle of aspirin.

And, like Paul, many work hard to keep their handicap a secret. They have their reasons.

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“When people find out, a lot of them look at you like you’re a freak. They think you’re retarded!” said Paul, who asked that his full name not be used in this article.

“I may not be able to read and write, but my mind works fine,” he added with a nervous chuckle. “I’m as human as them.”

A proud man who holds onto the traditional values of his rural Midwestern upbringing, Paul expected that as the man of the family he would play the dominant role in his marriage. Patty expected it too.

In time, however, the marriage began to strain under Paul’s growing dependence. Patty complained that Paul treated her “more like his mother than his wife.”

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Dependence born of illiteracy not only handicaps illiterates in their daily lives, but keeps them from participating fully in the nation’s economic and political system.

Illiterates fill the ranks of the country’s lowest-paid workers, welfare recipients, the unemployed and the prison population. They are found in higher proportions in the inner cities and in rural areas. Although, like Paul, the vast majority of illiterates are white, the statistics are especially grim for minorities and the poor, the two groups with the highest illiteracy rates.

Illiteracy is costly to the nation as a whole. Those who have studied the issue tack an annual multibillion-dollar price tag to the problem in lost productivity and unrealized tax revenues.

Slide Perceived

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Most experts agree that the number of Americans who cannot read and write is not necessarily on the rise. But they contend that a growing portion of the nation’s adult population is sliding below the literacy line, as the level of literacy required to function in an increasingly complex world rises.

In a simple agrarian age, experts say, only the most rudimentary literary skills were necessary. But the technological age, like the industrial era before it, has raised literary requirements.

Illiteracy is an old problem suffered by a minority silenced by its handicap.

Over the last two years, however, a cross-section of business leaders, public officials and literacy groups across the country have become sufficiently alarmed to spearhead a growing movement. Action includes involvement by the private sector, new local literacy programs and a nationwide advertising campaign.

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Local Activity

Some worry whether the unprecedented interest will prove to be more than a passing fad, but many are encouraged by growing activity at the local level.

In California, where it is estimated that as many as 4.5 million residents are illiterate, library-based literacy programs have been established across the state. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which declared June as Literacy Month, has commissioned a study to look at the impact of illiteracy on county programs.

Despite such efforts, existing programs are reaching no more than 5% of those in need, according to experts.

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Although they credit President Reagan’s call for volunteers through his 1983 “Adult Literacy Initiative,” they point out that the federal government’s allocation for adult basic education, by far the largest literacy program in the country, has remained nearly static over the last four years.

The consensus is that only a long-term commitment backed up by heavy federal investment will resolve this national predicament.

On a recent afternoon, relaxing on his day off from the sugar mill where he has worked for the last 10 years, Paul, 43, retrieved a yellowed and frayed one-page letter that he keeps carefully stored in a drawer. He held it gently in his rough hands.

The letter, written in a child’s clumsy scrawl to his grandmother many years ago, was perhaps the first letter Paul wrote. And, as far as he can recall, it was the last.

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It is the only tangible proof that, as his mother claims, Paul was able to write as a child.

“My mother said that I just came home one day and blocked it out,” Paul said. “I don’t know if it’s because my grandmother died or what. . . . We were real close.”

Paul grew up on an Illinois farm in “a hick town with one grocery story, a church and a gas station.” He walked more than 10 miles to “a little country school,” where one teacher taught three different grades in one classroom.

Although his teachers were aware of his problem, “they didn’t do anything about it,” Paul said. They “were more interested in the people who were doing well than in the dummies.”

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Paul dropped out of school in the 10th grade. “I was playing hooky quite a bit because I didn’t care anymore,” he said. “I figured I might as well get out and make some money.”

Paul’s complaint about his teachers is a common one among illiterates. But reasons given for illiteracy are numerous--poor schooling, dropping out of school, learning disabilities, television, illiterate parents, emotional problems, poverty. Recent immigrants not yet literate in English are also a factor, especially in California, where it is estimated that 40% of the nation’s new immigrants reside.

Shame Factor

The shame of not being able to read and write “like everyone else,” particularly among the native-born, can be humiliating. Teachers and volunteers who tutor adult illiterates invariably note that their students lack self-confidence.

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Some students now in literacy programs say they were despondent for years, judging themselves inadequate because of their lack of reading and writing skills. Others dropped out of school in frustration and continued a cycle of failure that led to alcoholism, the streets or juvenile hall.

Whether they blame themselves, their parents, teachers or “the system,” most illiterates say they feel cheated.

One of Paul’s greatest regrets is having missed the chance to enlist in the Army with his high school buddies.

Painful Rejection

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When the young men presented themselves at the local recruiting office, Paul was the only one rejected for service after failing the written test. Paul hasn’t forgotten the disappointment of being left behind when the others left town.

Although his illiteracy continued to be a constant irritant, Paul was too busy earning a living to do anything about it.

“For a long time,” he said, “I thought I was the only one (with this problem).”

The motivation to seek help is often born of crisis. For many, it comes when contemplating a new job or marriage, struggling with a drug addition or merely pondering the future.

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For Paul, it came during a particularly difficult period after his separation from Patty, when “everything seemed to be coming down on me at once.”

“I just decided I wanted to be more independent and not ask any help from anyone if I don’t need it,” he said. “I want to be able to make it on my own.”

When Patty and Paul got back together, he told her he wanted to learn to read and write. Despite many phone calls, however, it took two years to find a literacy program suited to Paul’s needs.

The waiting lists to enroll in most literacy programs are long; the list of volunteers and the money available is short.

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Paul got help through his Los Angeles city branch library. The California State Library has allocated federal and state funds for literacy programs at about one-third of the 169 library jurisdictions in the state. These programs are geared to English-speaking illiterates. The state library plans to establish programs in all library jurisdictions on a rotating basis.

The expectation is that local governments and businesses will “buy into the program” and maintain the largely volunteer programs. But reports that some programs are already faltering under reduced state funding has led the state library to reexamine the program’s funding schedules.

The Coalition for Literacy, a group of national adult education, literacy and library organizations, has launched a nationwide advertising campaign. The coalition also offers technical assistance to new literacy programs and helps fund a national literacy hot line to serve as both a referral service and a clearinghouse for literacy programs.

But the coalition is struggling to raise the $1.7 million in private funds it needs for its three-year program, according to program officer James Hawking.

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He called this indicative of the empty but “vast lip service” paid to the literacy campaign.

California maintains one of the biggest state financial commitments to literacy through its adult basic education program, said Lynda Smith, a literacy consultant with the state Department of Education.

Even so, funding for the program has not grown in several years, she said.

In California, the program serves about 600,000 adults annually free of charge. More than half are recent immigrants who want to learn English; the rest are enrolled in elementary courses.

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Immigrants are also drawn to classes offered by the nonprofit California Literacy Inc., the largest private voluntary literacy program in the state and part of the national Laubach Literacy Action. The group’s teaching materials and tutor training services, like those of Literacy Volunteers of America, the other major voluntary literacy organization in the country, are widely used by other literacy groups.

In both the private and library programs, students are matched with volunteer tutors. Free, individualized instruction is provided twice a week. Although it varies from case to case, the programs are designed to teach individuals to read and write at about a fifth-grade level in 18 months.

According to Smith, the combined efforts of all literacy programs in the state are reaching no more than 650,000 adults per year--"a drop in the bucket,” she said.

Furthermore, despite efforts to reach the native-born population, some experts maintain that existing programs are merely skimming “the cream of the crop.” They contend that the vast majority of illiterates, those locked into a cycle of poverty in communities ridden by unemployment, poor health care, crime and lack of opportunity, tend to be overlooked.

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“In many ways the issue is much more than one of reading and writing,” said Paul Jurmo, a spokesman for the national Business Council for Effective Literacy. “It really gets into very fundamental issues of social equity and equal opportunity. . . .”

The Assn. for Community Based Education, a national coalition of grass-roots groups, focuses its efforts on this most disadvantaged segment.

Unlike mainstream programs, these organizations typically teach reading and writing not as an end in itself, but as a means of equipping people to better deal with the issues that most profoundly affect them, according to association Director Christofer Zachariadis.

Participants are encouraged to discuss their problems, which are used as the basis for literacy instruction. It is an approach that Michael Jones, coordinator of Project Literacy, a community-based program in San Francisco, calls “education for social change.”

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“We see literacy as a political problem . . .,” Jones said. The goal, he said, is to “empower” minorities and the poor to “understand what’s going on in the world” so that they can be more effective citizens.

The project, like other community-based groups, operates on a shoestring budget, but boasts a higher retention rate than most mainstream programs, Jones said. He is encouraged by recent attention his project has received as a model for serving the poor, he said.

Longtime literacy advocate and author Jonathan Kozol maintains that the floodlight of attention on the illiteracy issue has created a sense of “national alarm” among members of both parties in Congress, as well as among public leaders across the country, as they have become aware of the dismal statistics and predictions surrounding the issue.

Reading Gap

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According to Kozol, nearly half of young nonwhite adults are illiterate or only semi-literate, and the AFL-CIO has predicted that by 1990 anyone with less than a 12th-grade education will be lost in the job market. Kozol also notes that the country’s publishing industry ranks 23rd in the world in the production of hard-cover books per capita and cites studies that show that most of the nation’s young adults do not read even one book a year.

But the growing awareness and literacy efforts are only “the first step,” Kozol said.

He maintains that nothing short of a $10-billion commitment by the federal government for adult literacy programs will solve the problem--"a bargain,” he contends, contrasted with the financial drain of illiteracy on the country’s economy. Some estimates of the toll run as high as $253 billion a year, including the cost of needless welfare, industrial accidents, prison maintenance and lost productivity.

Illiteracy is a problem that the poor pay for in “needless grief” and the rich pay for in added tax dollars, he said.

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The Business Council launched its campaign more than a year ago to promote support of literacy coordinating efforts, as well as volunteerism among corporate employees and in-house literacy programs.

“I hope this whole campaign isn’t just a one-shot deal in which everybody gets excited but nothing happens,” said Jurmo, the council spokesman. “If we want to mount a serious effort, what we’re saying is that there’s no way of getting around federal funding.”

But Jorie Lester Mark, an adult education program coordinator with the U.S. Department of Education, maintains that the federal government “doesn’t have all the money” either.

Mark described the $100-million federal allocation for the adult basic education program as tiny contrasted with other federally funded education programs. Only about 2.2 million of the nation’s illiterate adults are currently served through the program, she said.

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She agreed that there is “a real need for promoting basic education,” but said the federal government can only provide leadership and help in coordinating the multitude of literacy efforts.

Mark suggested that what is needed is a private fund-raising effort akin to what “the March of Dimes did for polio.”

Zachariadis, of the Community Based Education Assn., calls the Reagan Administration’s Literacy Initiative “just fluff and talk.”

“Reagan made a big deal about literacy, calling it a major problem,” he said. “So what does he do? Calls for volunteers and on the business sector to solve it.”

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Citing the lessons of successful literacy campaigns in other countries, Zachariadis said that a prerequisite for an effective attack on the problem is the infusion of massive national resources.

“The sad part is that this country has the resources and the infrastructure to make it happen, but doesn’t,” he said.

The relatively few who, like Paul, have found help through existing literacy programs often view it as their “second chance.” Many have gained the confidence to dream again.

For the first time, some look forward to promotions or new jobs. Some are beginning to think about marriage and forming a family.

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Just the other day, Paul read a note that his 14-year-old son left for him on the kitchen table.

“I was so proud of him,” said Paul’s wife, Patty, her eyes misting.

According to Patty, the couple’s separation, which precipitated her husband’s decision to learn to read and write, has taught both of them a lot.

“Paul found out he could survive without me and, in some strange way, it has brought us closer together,” she said.

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“Paul is learning to read and write for both of us.”

Patty, who is also a high school dropout, said that once Paul learns to read and write, they both plan to return to school.

“We’re going back together to get our high school diploma,” she said, laughing.

It will be an adventure, she added, “like climbing a mountain together.”

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