There has long been a debate on whether there is a direct link between illiteracy and criminal behavior. A report issued yesterday by the State Education Agency, a quasi-governmental unit created by the U.S. Department of Education, found that 36% of residents of Washington, D.C. are functionally illiterate. We also know that Washington has one of the country’s highest crime rates and is considered one of the most dangerous cities in America. In the 1990s the city was known as the “murder capital” of the nation, with 482 homicides in 1991. Even today, Washington’s overall crime rate is higher than that of New York and Los Angeles.

The agency defined “functionally illiterate” to mean adults who have trouble filling out job applications, understanding bus schedules, or reading maps. In one area of Washington known as “Ward 7” the illiteracy rate was 50.4%. Ironically, Washington, D.C. is considered a “white collar” town in which 47 percent of the jobs require a college or advanced degree. So to be functionally illiterate also means being unemployed or underemployed.

If the sociologists and others who study such matters are to be believed, without exception, illiterates feel ashamed, stupid and unwanted. They thus tend to drop out of society, fail to attend school, join gangs for a sense of belonging, and so become involved in drugs and crime. Being unable to read, these individuals are often unable to comprehend how to prevent teenage pregnancy, disease, and the spread of AIDS.

While Washington has been predominantly black since the 1930s, new waves of immigrants, especially Hispanics and Ethiopians, have added to the functionally illiterate population of the city. While many of these newcomers may have been able to read and write in their native countries, their lack of proficiency in English makes them contributors to Washington’s functional illiteracy level.

The District of Columbia Chamber of Commerce notes that many positions in the city go unfilled because of lack of qualified job applicants. The consequences are twofold: the city lost $107 million in payroll taxes last year; and because not enough qualified applicants are available, many of these jobs are the first to be lost to overseas competitors. One local official called the levels of unemployment in Washington “appalling.”

The paradoxical nature of the situation is underscored by the fact that Washington has been described as “the planet’s greatest cultural collection,” and most of it is free. Stroll the city’s Mall and you will come upon the Smithsonian Institution, National Gallery of Art, scores of museums and historic buildings, free lectures, free tours, the list is endless. Yet one out of three residents of this world-class city cannot even read the street signs directing them to these treasures.

As expected, task forces and consulting groups are being formed to determine how federal and local resources are being used, and how they might be better employed. Four years ago a $4 million adult literacy initiative was launched. So far the studies have revealed that those who did not complete high school were among the largest group of illiterates. The report also noted, not surprisingly, that the children of illiterates often end up illiterate themselves. So like a dog chasing its tail, the study groups and task forces go round and round, eventually coming up with bland and insipid pronouncements that even the illiterates could have fashioned.

John Kenneth Galbraith put in well in his book, The Affluent Society:

People are the common denominator of progress. So no improvement is possible with unimproved people, and advance is certain when people are liberated and educated. It would be wrong to dismiss the importance of roads, railroads, power plants, mills, and other familiar furniture of economic development. But we are coming to realize that there is a certain sterility in economic monuments that stand alone in a sea of illiteracy. Conquest of illiteracy comes first.

– Chase.Hamil

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