The National Coalition for Literacy honors the memory and legacy of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on September 18, 2020, at her home in Washington, DC.
Growing up in a low-income working class neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, and inspired by her mother, Justice Ginsburg regarded a strong education as the foundation for independent living and full participation in civic and community life. Throughout her career she remained a fierce and outspoken advocate for equality of opportunity for all, particularly women and persons of low socioeconomic status.
When asked how she would like to be remembered, Justice Ginsburg said this:
“Someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has.” — to MSNBC in 2015.
The NCL and its members will long remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg as someone who made things far more than “a little better.”
“Our world is rich and diverse with about 7,000 living languages. These languages are instruments for communication, engagement in lifelong learning, and participation in society and the world of work. They are also closely linked with distinctive identities, cultures, worldviews, and knowledge systems. Embracing linguistic diversity in education and literacy development is therefore a key part of developing inclusive societies that respect “diversity” and “difference,” upholding human dignity.”
Audrey Azoulay, Director General of UNESCO Message on the occasion of International Literacy Day
NCL has made the 2020 Census its priority issue for
2019-2020. Why? Because, as our members know, an accurate and fair count is
essential for adult learners, the programs that serve them, and the communities
where they live and work.
Census population counts determine how Congressional districts are drawn, and thus how populations are represented. Businesses use Census data to guide decisions about where to build facilities that can provide jobs. And, according to the Census Bureau, Census data “help determine how more than $675 billion in federal funding is distributed to states and communities every year.” That funding supports hospitals, housing programs, fire departments, food and nutrition programs, road construction … and adult education, through the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA, Title II of WIOA).
Why do adult
learners need a particular focus?
NCL’s goal in focusing
it work on the 2020 Census is to ensure as full a count as possible of adult
learners and their families and codependents. Many of these residents fall into
one or more of the groups that the Census Bureau has identified as “hard to
count” (and therefore at risk of an undercount). “Hard to count” populations
include low-income households, foreign-born persons, people of color, rural
residents, the homeless and young children. Getting these groups to fill out the census questionnaire presents challenges – they may have no address to send it to, they may not trust the state or they may be physically/mentally unable. It is vital that these groups are counted, however, so that the issues facing them can be addressed. It is not possible, for example, to improve adult literacy if we don’t know how many adults can’t read or write. Similarly, we can’t end homelessness if we don’t know how many homeless people they are. That is why the census is so important.
An undercount of these populations could result in reduced resource allocations and reduced political representation for their communities. By educating adult learners about the 2020 Census and encouraging them to complete it and to share information in their communities, adult education programs can support a full and fair count of the population groups their learners represent. In addition, as trusted institutions, adult education programs and libraries are well positioned to reach the communities they serve with accurate, timely information about the nature and significance of the Census and guidance that helps adults with limited literacy or English language skills avoid Census-related scams and fraud that may target them.
What are the challenges?
For 2020, the
Census Bureau has made changes to its procedures for supporting Census
completion. These changes are likely to have negative effects on response rates
for adults with limited reading and digital literacy skills:
The Bureau is emphasizing online response. In most cases, the initial mailing will invite recipients to respond online. Those who lack online access or have limited digital skills will need support to follow up online, and guidance to understand that they can also respond on paper or by phone.
The Bureau will not provide instructional materials specifically for use in adult education programs. While the Bureau plans to release educational materials for K-12 students through its Statistics in Schools program, it has no plans to develop materials geared to adult learners as it did in 2000 and 2010. Adult educators will be on their own to adapt or create activities and materials that help their learners understand and respond to the Census and avoid potential Census-related fraud and scams.
In addition, because the Bureau does not yet have an established budget for fiscal 2020, it has had to limit its plans to provide face-to-face support for Census completion. In prior Census years, the Bureau provided for Questionnaire Assistance Centers at libraries and community centers. The American Library Association described the importance of QACs in a February 2019 letter to Bureau Director Steven Dillingham:
hosted more than 6,000 Questionnaire Assistance Centers and Be Counted sites in
the 2010 Census … Libraries offer ideal locations for Questionnaire Assistance
Centers in many hard-to-count communities: 99% of Census tracts with the lowest
self-response rates in 2010 are located within five miles of a public library. Furthermore,
many residents with lower Internet connectivity or skills will turn to their
local library to access the new Internet Self-Response option, and 98% of
tracts with poor Internet access are located within five miles of a public
However, for 2020 the Bureau may not be able to support QACs, given the current uncertainties about its funding for fiscal 2020. Because the Senate will not begin work on the 2020 budget until it reconvenes on September 10, passage of the final budget is not likely to happen before fiscal 2020 begins on October 1. As a result, Congress will need to pass a Continuing Resolution to keep the government open until a final budget is passed. The challenge this presents for the Census Bureau is outlined in a case memo developed by the Census Task Force:
“Most FY 2020 appropriations bills will not be finalized until later in the fall (at best), well after the October 1 start date to the fiscal year. … The Census Bureau needs to know at the start of the fiscal year how much money it will have for the entire year, so it knows what efforts it can afford to undertake. Without funding certainty at the start of the year, the Census Bureau could decide it must curtail certain important activities – from outreach and advertising to cyber-security steps to hiring a full complement of census field staff – to prevent a funding shortfall later in the fiscal year.”
You can act at both the individual and the programmatic level.
1. Advocate: Email or call your Senators and
Representatives to promote inclusion in the Continuing Resolution of a full year funding anomaly for the 2020 Census
of $7.5 billion, as part of Periodic Censuses and Programs account funding of
This is the stakeholder-recommended funding level that was included in the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations bill (H.R. 3055) that the House passed earlier this year. This funding anomaly, if passed, will allow the Census Bureau to plan for the full year of activities and carry out activities that ensure a fair and accurate count. For more information, read the case memo developed by the Leadership Conference’s Census Task Force and share it as part of your advocacy.
2. Participate: Become informed about how the Census is administered, who is counted, what questions are asked (and not asked), how the Census Bureau maintains information confidentiality, and more. Use Census Bureau fact sheets and infographics for information. Plan to complete the Census yourself. Here is the Census Bureau’s timeline for 2020:
3. Educate: Understand your adult learners’ concerns about the Census and preferred response method (online, paper, phone, in person). Use the NCL Census resource list to plan ways to incorporate relevant digital literacy skills and content-based instruction at individual class or wider programmatic levels. The NCL list contains links to teaching/learning materials and community outreach materials developed by a number of organizations, and is updated regularly. In addition, this fall NCL member organizations will be developing teaching materials and related activities specifically for use in ABE/ESL contexts.
4. Stay Up to Date: Throughout the 2019-2020 program year, NCL members will be providing topical webinars and conference presentations to address specific aspects of the Census process and share knowledge and resources designed for adult learners and adult education practitioners. Webinars and conference presentations will be listed here on the NCL website and announced through the NCL listserv with links to available slide decks and recordings.
As we look forward to Adult Education and Family Literacy Week later this month, please join the NCL in advocating and working for a fair and accurate count for #Census2020!
In 1968, sanitation work was one of the few options available to those with limited literacy skills. Milloy describes Alvin Turner, who paid for his three children’s college educations on a sanitation worker’s income. Turner himself “didn’t have a lot of opportunities for formal education,” Milloy writes. “He had to take a job with low pay and high risk.”
Yet even the limited opportunities that were available to Turner have become scarce 50 years later. Milloy quotes Cleophus Smith, a Memphis sanitation worker since the 1960s.
“Years and years ago,” Smith recalled, “I told a co-worker, ‘Look, the day is going to come when we are going to have to know how to read and write because if we don’t we are not going to be able to hold a position on these garbage trucks.’ ” And sure enough, Smith said, “We had to take a skill test a few weeks ago, six to nine sheets of questions you had to read and answer. The next thing I know, these young guys are whispering to me: ‘Doc, can you help me? What’s the answer to this one?’ I don’t blame them for not being able to read. Nobody taught them.”
“To operate equipment on virtually any job today means being able to read directions,” Milloy writes. “Too many adults still have not acquired that basic skill. …If federal officials ever make good on their pledge to spend billions if not a trillion dollars to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, local officials need to be ready.”
“Tough as the fight for social and economic justice may be, it’s a whole lot harder if you’re illiterate.”