From Welfare to Work. The Transition of an Illiterate Population


Welfare reform is now a reality. Yet the challenge of moving millions from welfare to work will be as difficult as the reforms are popular. Policy makers and entry-level employers must now grapple with the employment impediments which are keeping much of the welfare population out of the work force. And foremost among these problems is illiteracy.

One-third of welfare recipients are functionally illiterate. They struggle to perform the simplest of reading, writing and quantitative tasks -- e.g., completing a job application or bank deposit form. Another third of this population possesses only marginally better reading skills, still unable to perform many basic job-related tasks.

For these individuals, entry-level jobs represent their only employment opportunities. Lacking both formal education and real work experience, they cannot expect to walk into middle-management jobs. Just as important, they cannot expect salaries based on need rather than qualifications.

Yet with the onset of welfare reform, this is just what many are proposing -- higher mandated wages or so-called "living wages" of up to $9 an hour or more. What is ignored by these proposals is the basic tenet of the employment process: that employees are hired based on their skills, not their needs.

An undeniable correlation exists between literacy and economic success. Consider the statistics:

More than 32 percent of Americans who report no income are functionally illiterate.

Approximately two-thirds of Americans who read at the lowest of five literacy levels report that their reading skills are "not at all limiting" when it comes to job opportunities.

Illiteracy rates have risen dramatically since World War II, with a significant increase during the last decade alone.

In America, wages are a function of literacy and skills -- not government mandates. This paper analyzes this skill-wage equation, concluding that America's staggering illiteracy rate is not only a major cause of income discrepancies, but a major impediment in the crusade to move millions from welfare to work.