Estonia. Slovak Republic. Norway. Belgium. What do these countries have in common? Adults in these countries have higher levels of literacy than those in the United States, according to a recent survey of literacy sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

That survey measured the cognitive and workplace skills needed for successful participation in 21st-century society and the global economy. It tested adults in 23 nations — in Europe, North America, Australia, and Japan. American adults scored significantly lower than 13 of those countries and below the international average.

September 8 was International Literacy Day, a good time to consider the importance of literacy skills, internationally and here in Bridgeport. Literacy has a powerful impact on economic development, health, and personal well-being. Low literacy hurts both men and women, but it affects women particularly. As a literacy specialist and an economist, we have seen that impact, both in national data and in our work at Mercy Learning Center, a literacy center for women in Bridgeport.

Mercy Learning Center provides basic literacy and life skills training to low-income women using a holistic approach within a compassionate supportive environment. Last year it served 1,050 women and children from Bridgeport and the surrounding communities. Almost 900 women studied there, taking classes or participating in tutoring. The Center is truly international, with students from 51 countries. Some come to learn English, often after being in this country for years. Others seek their high school diploma so that they can get a better job or attend community college. Last year 24 students at the Center earned their high school diplomas, 85 found new jobs, 17 became U.S. citizens, and 65 alumnae of the Center have enrolled in college or career certificate programs.

Literacy skills are important for both men and women as they seek to get and hold jobs, but low literacy skills disproportionately hurt women in the workplace. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research reports that women with low literacy skills earn significantly lower wages than men with similar skills. The Institute found that women with the most limited literacy skills are twice as likely as men to have weekly earnings at the lowest level. Providing educational programs designed to help women, the Institute maintains, should be a national priority.

Diane, who achieved her GED® as a student at Mercy Learning Center, understands those economic consequences. Having dropped out of school in the eighth grade, she knows the difficulty of keeping a job without a high school degree. “I was working and I kept getting laid off,” she explained, “I worked in offices, I worked in factories, I worked in fast food, and I realized I need something stable, at the end of the day.” Now, with a GED®, Diane is able to qualify for a better job. In Bridgeport, 26% of adults lack a high school diploma, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Their economic well-being and the city’s are closely related.

Literacy also makes a difference to health. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy surveyed 19,000 American adults to assess their ability to locate and understand information about health. It found that 36% of American adults could not read well enough to manage essential health-related tasks, such as reading a pamphlet on asthma or understanding instructions on taking medication. Not surprisingly, adults who did not have a high school degree and adults who lived in poverty had the lowest health literacy scores. Yet these adults often have to manage not only their own health care, but also that of their children or aging parents.

At Mercy Learning Center we found that, when women gain education, they also become more competent at managing their health. Julia, for instance, the mother of three children, noted a change in her own behavior as she studied for the GED®. She said, “I try to get books from the library and read about health and about my diet. It is very interesting for me and my children because I want to care for their health. Me too, I want to care for myself.” In the year-end survey at the Center, 91% of students reported that they learned to take better care of their health.

Above all, literacy has a profound impact on self-esteem and family life. Women with strong literacy skills can advocate for themselves, their communities, and their families. They know how to speak up for their children in school, and they model productive behavior for their children. Carmen, who achieved her high school degree at Mercy Learning Center after dropping out of school in ninth grade, said, “I tell my daughter to go read a book instead of watching TV. You see, the more you read the more you learn.”

This week, when we celebrate International Literacy Day, let’s remember Carmen, Diane, Julia, and the many others who value literacy and work to attain it.

Students in Mercy Learning Center’s Adult Basic Education Level I class last spring. Thirty women from 14 countries came together in the class to learn literacy and life skills each day last year

Students in Mercy Learning Center’s Adult Basic Education Level I class last spring. Thirty women from 14 countries came together in the class to learn literacy and life skills each day last year

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