The multi-billion dollar cost of illiteracy

At least once a week my grandfather would disappear. I didn’t know where he went but I knew I didn’t have to share the remote control for the television.

He liked to watch Steven Seagal, Chuck Norris or any movie with a prison fight scene. The fanciest room in the house had a portrait of Charles Bronson above the fireplace mantle.

We didn’t own a bookcase but we had several drawers built for VHS cassettes in our living room. He loved action movies.

All I wanted to do was watch cartoons.

And on those nights he’d disappear, I could see my animated friends without the gunfire, car chases and the sound of a roundhouse kick connecting to a bad guy’s face. I could get lost in pen-drawn heroes teaching me life lessons disguised as entertainment.

But like most children, questions became my favourite sentences. Why isn’t Grandpa here? Why is it so quiet? Where did he go? Can I go?

He returned one evening to find a demanding seven-year-old.

He let out a sigh. Not one of those sighs of relief but that of irritation. His reluctant response accompanied another sigh: “If you come with me, you can’t bother me. This is my time.”

I publicly promised not to bother him.

I had no idea where we were going, so I secretly planned to bother him if I ended up bored or disinterested. Of course I didn’t tell him that.

Like most children born of teenage parents, I lived with my grandparents for the first part of my life. It was full of television, lollies and unaccountability.

Some mornings I had chocolate for breakfast. Some mornings I didn’t go to school if I didn’t feel like it.

So, when Grandpa was to take me to the magical place where he disappeared at night, my imagination ran wild.

Maybe we were going to the movies. Maybe we were going out for icecream. Maybe the circus was in town.

He never told me where we were going but there was to be no icecream.

He drove us to the library.

This is when I learned my grandfather couldn’t read and couldn’t write. He had been at the library each week for tutoring.

He went to work each morning before the sun came up and often came home after the sun came down. He would return with construction debris in his thinning hair and paint splattered on his tattoed arms.

He worked, and still does, seven days a week.

His job options were limited and he hustled work anywhere he could: landscaping, painting, demolition or anything requiring a little muscle.

But, as with many people who can’t write a cheque, navigate a computer or fill out a job application, his employment opportunities were limited.

If you think this is a problem for individual households, think again.

It’s a problem for businesses, government and society, too.

The World Literacy Foundation estimates illiteracy costs a developed nation 2% of its gross domestic product each year. For New Zealand, that’s $2.9 billion; Australia, $A19 billion; and the US, $US300.8 billion.

Illiterate people earn 30% to 42% less than their literate counterparts, according to the foundation. Further, their capacity is limited to make money for their employers.

Think of customers lost because of poor communication, the cost of fixing incorrect orders or, even worse, issuing a refund to a customer because your employee couldn’t read a contract.

The New Zealand Centre for Workforce Literacy Development found two-thirds of employees recently surveyed did not fully understand written information about their employers’ health and safety policies, hazard information and safety procedures.

Furthermore, 80% of the respondents, who worked in manufacturing, warehousing, hospitality, couldn’t accurately complete hazard report forms because of literacy.

This amounts to lost productivity for the employer and extra headaches with incorrect and incomplete paperwork.

While English-speaking nations such as New Zealand and US have high literacy rates by international standards, the data over and again shows the disparity in literacy and learning is largely a question of socioeconomic ranking.

I came from a blue collar family with no university degrees and little academic achievement. Sometimes, I wonder if I would have been one of those employment statistics had I not accidently found the library.

It became a defining moment in my life.

Decades later, while earning my master’s degree, I spent countless hours in the dungeon of my school library and, surprisingly, the smell of dust on paper has become comforting.

But so is watching a Chuck Norris movie.

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