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Los Angeles Addresses Low Literacy Levels - 2004-09-10

More than half of the working-age people in Los Angeles have trouble reading and writing, according to a report by the United Way charity. Local leaders say the problem threatens the city's economy.

Joe Haggerty, who heads the Los Angeles branch of the United Way, says a combination of factors make the problem worse in Los Angeles than in other U.S. cities. The survey shows that 53 percent of working-age people in Los Angeles have poor literacy skills, and he says part of the reason is poverty. "We have over two million people living below the federal poverty level here in Los Angeles County, so it is 20 percent of the county. Some of it is related to immigration, and some of it is really related to people not finishing high school, so they do not put themselves in a good position to compete in a very competitive world these days," he says.

Some two million residents are unable to read a map, which puts them at the lowest end of the literacy scale. Another 1.5 million are unable to write a letter to complain to their local utility about a billing error.

Los Angeles is a magnet for immigrants, and Los Angeles city councilman Eric Garcetti says many lack fluency in spoken and written English. He adds that some are illiterate in their native language. Mr. Garcetti represents a district that includes Hollywood, known as the historic home of the movie industry. It has wealthy hillside enclaves and many less-expensive neighborhoods filled with immigrants.

"Over 100 languages are spoken in my district, so if you walk down a street, you might meet a Thai family living next door to a Guatemalan family, living next door from a family from Cameroon," he says. "And the challenge that brings is, if we want to do something like improve the neighborhood - we want to add speed bumps, we want to have a stop sign, we want to clean up a neighborhood from graffiti - is how do we get these people first of all to talk to one another? But then even more importantly, how do we provide families with the skills to be able to get better jobs?"

The city official says his district is home to major hospitals that need nurses and nurses' assistants. "We did not have the literate work force here in Los Angeles, so they have been hiring people from other countries, which is great [because] we have always been the land of opportunity. But when there are people who need jobs who live a block or two away from these hospitals, it is incumbent upon us to give them the literacy skills to have those high-paying jobs too," he says.

Local corporations, like the telecommunications firm Verizon, are contributing money to the literacy effort partly because they want to improve the skills of the local workforce. Verizon executive Timothy McCallion says his company's telephone operators, equipment installers, and clerks all keep track of their work on computers.

The results of low literacy can cause problems in other areas, from drivers who cannot read traffic signs to medical patients unable to read the instructions on medicines.

Programs to improve reading skills for adults are offered in public schools, community colleges and libraries. Non-profit institutions and religious organizations are also helping. But Terri Clark of the Literacy Network of Greater Los Angeles says there is little coordination, and few efforts to identify which programs are effective. National figures show that half of the adults who enroll in literacy classes quickly drop out.

To improve that poor record, her agency is spearheading a literacy project for the city. "We are not reinventing the wheel. It is coordinating the system. But we are also identifying that a number of the providers in the system currently are not attaching workforce goals as an end-goal for the learner," she says.

She explains that means literacy programs and job-training programs need to work together, and often they do not. But the coordination is starting. Literacy classes are now offered in some workplaces, to help people get the skills they need on the job.

The recent survey shows that nearly four million residents of Los Angeles are unable to fill out a job application. Only 15 percent of them are getting help. Councilman Garcetti says residents need to prod their politicians to set aside more resources to address the problem.