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Literacy, Welfare, and Work

October 1995

Levels of literacy and degrees of success in the labor market are clearly and closely linked.

Low literacy proficiencies are widespread in the welfare population. About three of every four AFDC, public assistance, and food stamps recipients performed in the two lowest levels of literacy defined in the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS).

Three out of four welfare recipients cannot consistently perform tasks such as writing a letter to explain a billing error, entering information into an automobile maintenance form, or calculating miles per gallon using information given on a mileage record chart.

Adults on welfare (22%) were less than half as likely as adults in the general population (48%) to have been employed full time. Further, they were far more likely to have been unemployed or out of the labor force (44% compared to 23%).

The likelihood of being on welfare goes up as literacy levels go down.

Most welfare recipients view their reading abilities quite positively. It may be that their skills enable them to meet many or most of the literacy demands they encounter in their daily lives.

Welfare dependency can be reduced in two ways: 1) by increasing literacy levels in the general population to reduce the risk of falling into dependency, and 2) by raising the literacy levels of those already on welfare to help them become more financially self-sufficient.

AFDC, public assistance, and food stamps recipients were less likely than those in the general population to read a newspaper every day or at least once a week, and they were twice as likely to say that they never read a newspaper.

Fifteen percent of the AFDC, public assistance, and food stamps recipients report that they had enrolled in a program to improve their reading, writing, and arithmetic skills..

The literacy skills of welfare recipients who had graduated from high school or obtained a GED® were much stronger than those of their counterparts who had not done so.

The average literacy level of welfare recipients is below that of unskilled laborers and assemblers.

Welfare recipients had a median annual household income of roughly $10,000; in contrast, the median income of adults in the general population was nearly $31,000.

According to the NALS, the size of the performance gap between White and African-American adults, and between White and Latino adults, is smaller within the welfare populations than within the national population.

Approximately half of the food stamps recipients and 45% of the AFDC or public assistance recipients had not graduated from high school, nearly twice the percentage of school dropouts nationwide.

Welfare recipients with higher literacy proficiencies have a substantial economic advantage over those with lower proficiencies.

Although many of the welfare recipients who participated in the NALS had not graduated from high school, about 1/4 had earned high school diplomas and almost 20% had gone on to complete some post-secondary education.

The median weekly wage of employed AFDC, public assistance, or food stamps recipients was $182, while that of workers nationwide was $333 -- almost two times higher.

Not just any literacy or education program will succeed in raising welfare recipients' literacy skills or improving their employment or economic prospects; therefore, assigning welfare recipients to existing adult basic education programs appears to have little measurable effect on raising their literacy proficiencies.

Education is typically only one element in a package of programs and services needed by welfare recipients.

Source: Barton, P. E., & Jenkins, L. (1995). Literacy and Dependency: The Literacy Skills of Welfare Recipients in the United States. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Services.

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