Almost half of New Mexico adults can’t read well enough to understand this paragraph. The statistics from 20 years ago are not showing improvement .
New Mexico’s school children are also behind. According to the Kids Count Data Book for the state, 76% of fourth graders are not proficient in reading.
So it is commendable that the Albuquerque Journal, KOAT-TV and KKOB radio have initiated a year-long project to call attention to our literacy crisis.
The rest of the country is not doing well either.
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), 21 percent of U.S. adults fall into the illiterate/functionally illiterate category. Nearly two-thirds of fourth graders read below grade level, and the same number graduate from high school reading below grade level.
It’s no surprise that low literacy is associated with social dysfunction. Among many depressing statistics, two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of 4th grade will end up in jail or on welfare. More than 70% of America’s inmates cannot read above a 4th grade level.
Clearly, it’s past time to tackle this issue in New Mexico.
Hundreds of thousands of New Mexicans were idled by the Covid stay-at-home orders. Thousands are still unemployed and collecting benefits. What are they doing?
While many have legitimate reasons to stay home, such as caring for all small children, even child care does not occupy every minute of every day.
Some of the unemployed are now required to prove they are looking for work. Business owners say some workers go through the motions without really intending to get a job. Maybe, for those who can’t read, it would be more beneficial to enroll them in a reading program.
And then there’s my favorite topic, workers’ comp.
Before the reform in 1990, New Mexico’s workers’ comp system provided vocational rehabilitation. As implemented then, it was expensive and ineffective. The requirement was eliminated in the reform but unfortunately not replaced with anything better. Since then, as the principles behind workers’ compensation reform are being forgotten by policymakers, we have simply not gotten around to figuring out what would work better.
Some workers with injury-related permanent limitations can’t return to their old job, may be off work for several months or longer and have no guidance on what to do next. During this period they are expected to work on their recovery, through physical therapy or whatever the doctor recommends, but otherwise they are being paid to do nothing. (We don’t know how many because the legislature keeps raiding the Workers’ Compensation Administration budget so there’s not enough money for a study.)
I see a pattern.
New Mexico provides free adult basic education all around the state, funded through the state Higher Education Department, including 24 programs mostly affiliated with community colleges.
According to Amber Gallup Rodriguez, Director of HED’s Adult Education Division, the programs moved online last year and now are developing hybrid options. There are two major program groups, inconveniently named adult education and adult literacy, so it’s hard to tell them apart.
In 2019-20 the adult education programs served a total of 9520 students, including 1369 through the state Corrections Department. They cover students with grade zero education through high school equivalency. Adult literacy served smaller numbers providing basic literacy skills.
I’m not suggesting anyone should be forced to enroll in literacy programs, but, for those adults who would benefit, the resources exist. One way to improve the state’s literacy is to connect these programs with people like injured workers who are already idled by circumstances and might welcome a chance to improve not only their skills but also their employability and self-esteem.
This would require changes in the rules. It is not too big a leap for workers’ compensation. It just needs policy makers with imagination and incentive.
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