All around the world, poverty is invariably linked to illiteracy. It seems straightforward that people would be able to live better lives if they knew how to read, write and count, but many do not recognize the extent of how many people in the world would be taken out of poverty if only they had basic literacy skills. It is believed that an estimated 171 million people would be able to get back on their feet with the appropriate abilities to read and write. Often taken for granted by many educated people, literacy is a lifelong skill without which one becomes increasingly marginalized in today’s digital world.
The most obvious way illiteracy causes poverty is in limiting the jobs available to them. Most modern decent-paying jobs require one to be literate to perform on the job, such as white collar work. Even if the job scope does not include literacy skills, most jobs require a formal application to be sent in, which is next to impossible for those who cannot read or write. Without literacy skills, it is also difficult for a person to pursue higher education to get better qualifications for a job that pays well. This renders them stuck at the bottom rung of the corporate ladder.
Additionally, employers tend to pay their workers according to their education level and capabilities, meaning that illiterate people will almost always get less pay, even if they are doing the same work as an educated person. A report by UNESCO found that every additional year of education increases an employee’s wages by as much as 10 percent. This amount is even greater in places such as sub-Saharan Africa, where the increase is 13 percent. If every person were able to read and write, there would be a more equal distribution of wealth.
An indirect way that illiteracy links to poverty is in the healthcare sector. For one, if illiterate people were able to read and understand health warnings, whether on labels, signposts or at the workplace, they would be less likely to suffer accidents that could have been prevented.
Secondly, illiteracy also increases one’s susceptibility to diseases as the person may not be as educated about health concerns. This is especially true in developing countries where diseases are rampant. If everyone were educated about the spread of diseases and various methods for prevention and cure, diseases would spread less readily, leading to healthier lives, and thus an increased capability to work for greater income.
Educated parents, particularly mothers, also play an important role in decreasing the mortality rates of infants and young children. In countries where many mothers are illiterate, their children have a greater risk of not surviving till the age of five. It is believed that for every year of education the parents attain, the rate of child mortality decreases by nine percent. Additionally, the children are less likely to suffer from malnutrition if their parents are educated. This is probably affected by greater household income as well as the parents’ awareness of providing a well-balanced diet.
In communities where a large portion of people are illiterate, it is not uncommon for people to engage in gang activity, crime and child soldiery or marriage. For some, poverty may spur them on to rob, steal or sell their children away, which may give them much-needed cash in the short term, but only continues the unending cycle of poverty in the long run. Others may choose to engage in these activities simply because they have nothing better to do, and do not have many available sources of entertainment if they are unable to read or write.
Increasing literacy would alleviate some of these issues. Education gives people new pathways to explore and new goals to pursue. Apart from increasing the likelihood that people find better jobs and get a better income, the ability to read and write also opens people up to new activities for leisure. They may be able to read a book, read the newspaper, play a computer game, watch a movie or engage in recreational activities, all of which detract from the spare time they previously had, decreasing the chances of people finding gangs to join or crimes to commit. It is estimated that being able to read and write makes it 50 percent less likely that a person will commit robbery or murder.
The societal issues of child soldiery and marriage also stem from a lack of literacy. Those with low education levels are more likely to consider sending their children to the military or to marriage. In some cases, the children themselves choose these paths, because they may not see any other options for their future, usually when they are in poverty. By keeping children in school for longer and ensuring that their parents have a sufficient literacy level, the incidence of child soldiery and child marriage can be decreased.
In both of these cases, literacy helps people to make informed decisions about their lives and their future. The gift of education provides people with new opportunities that they would otherwise not have had if they were illiterate, and can help to break age-old traditions that hamper the wellbeing of future generations.
When the majority of a nation is illiterate, the people are all more likely to suffer from poverty. This begins with a lack of fundamental skills such as reading, writing and counting. Without developing these skills, people would have fewer opportunities in life, leading them to hold poorer quality jobs and thus earn a lower income. When this is the case for nearly every person in a nation, the total spending power of the people is low, creating a poor economy. A failing economy also impacts future generations as they would have fewer education and employment opportunities since the country would not be able to afford it.
The converse is true: literacy helps an economy grow. Highly educated people tend to have more refined and relevant skillsets, which gives them more opportunities to secure a better job and earn a higher income. This increases the nation’s collective wealth, leading to a greater spending power and a thriving economy. The country is then more able to utilize its economic power to promote better education for everyone, such as building more schools, improving the education curriculum and ensuring that every student’s need is met by the school system. Effectively, improving education can lift many people out of poverty for generations to come.
Reducing poverty begins with increasing employment opportunities. However, a better education is key to getting better employment. As such, the first step towards reducing worldwide poverty is to increase literacy rates and ensure that everyone receives a basic education.
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