The Unites States’ Declaration of Independence (US, 1776) proudly declares, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And while Americans certainly have such liberties and rights, most notably the rights of free speech and assembly to protest social injustice, nearly 17 million of America’s children live in abject poverty and with families whose income are below the federal poverty line (Owens, 2010). Furthermore, this poverty is empirically and emphatically linked to ever-increasing rates of illiteracy among youths nation-wide (Evans, Harris, Sethuraman, Thiruvaiyaru, Penderfraft, Cliett, & Cato, 2016). The rate of illiteracy has reached the point of crisis in the United States as the achievement gap between social class and ethnicities create the tragic and severe consequences of poorer health, greater rates of incarceration, and lower annual wage earnings (“Education,” 2018). What is even more interesting is the growing gap in literacy among White and middle-class children and that African American and low-income children (Jarrett, Hamilton, & Rodriguez, 2015).
Literacy is defined as the ability to utilized written and/or printed material to achieve goal-oriented tasks, make a living, and to function in life (Chaney, 2014). African American children, statistically, are less proficient in literacy and disproportionately unready to enter kindergarten at the age of five or six (Jarrett et al., 2015). Although it is generally known among researchers and social workers alike that early literacy skills and impoverishment are associated with risks for reading disabilities (Tichnor-Wagner, Garwood, Bratsch-Hines, & Vernon-Feagans, 2016), more research is still needed to fully understand the linked relationship of literacy and poverty as they relate to African Americans. Insight into this phenomenon may very well lead to not only the advancement of all children regardless of race, socioeconomic status, neighborhood, etc., but may advance the entire country as a whole on account of all combined intelligence being maximized (Barusch, 2018). To this effect, with more solution-based research, the widening gap of literacy between African Americans and that of White/European Americans may finally lessen (Evans et al., 2016).
The subsequent literature review sections that follow examines previous research and findings in an effort to, firstly, provide the reader with reputable work that shows the strongly linked correlational relationship of poverty and illiteracy and their effect on African American people to date. Strengths-based research and deficit-based research will be presented to expose the reader to different approaches concerning the matter of literacy, poverty, and African Americans. Secondly, the reader will be presented with solution-based research in an effort to galvanize those interested in creating programs that diminish the literacy gap between people of color and White/European Americans and reignite the passion of community leaders and social workers who may have burned themselves out on the subject. This issue continues to devastate communities and shortchange the country as a whole in true advancement; it demands urgent and focused attention so that all people may truly have the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness written in the Declaration of Independence (US, 1776).
Jarrett (2015) notes that to date, much of the research that has been done on the subject of illiteracy and poverty as they relate to African Americans and people of color has been quantitative, deficit-based and focused more on what African Americans are not doing to help themselves, their children, and their lives as a whole as opposed to what they are doing and still facing an uphill battle because of the jaded nature of social policy the education system. However, the research conducted by Chaney (2014) examines the linked phenomenon of illiteracy, poverty, and African Americans from an intergenerational family-strengths and standpoint while Jarrett (2015) offers a qualitative, first-person viewpoint on family practices. The wealth of contextual information presented by Jarrett (2015) and his first-person interviews offer a sense of genuineness, credibility, and rawness that is difficult to find in older, more dated qualitative research. Moreover, the article’s findings dispelled the notion of Tichnor-Wagner et al., 2016 that African American mothers, overwhelmingly do not read to their children. A total of 20 African American mothers were interviewed and articulately shared the ways in which they encouraged literacy among there children (Jarrett, 2015). Reading techniques used by these mothers encompassed alphabet mastery, word and letter recognition, showing and telling (Words), spelling, name recognition, and vocabulary (Jarrett, 2015).
Correspondingly, research conducted by Chaney (2014), like that of Jarrett (2015), is strengths-based and entails a more progressive and strength-based approach as opposed to research attended by Tichnor-Wagner et al., 2016 which is more deficit-based and showcases some of the shortcomings of African American parents in impoverished communities. Chaney (2014) defines intergenerational family literacy as a literacy-based practice that builds on the inherent strengths of Black families, fosters confidence, increases self-esteem, increases a changed or renewed value orientation, and develops stronger relationship bonds among the African American child, individuals within and between generations, as well as within the school, neighborhood, and religious contexts (p. 35). Chaney’s qualitative research presented a compelling intergenerational family literacy model that utilizes the strengths of Black families such as the inherent strong work orientation, adaptability of family, high achievement orientation, and religious orientation to build an intricate network of resources available to them. Further still, Chaney (2014) reveals the myriad of family dynamics among Black families that can and will benefit from the intergenerational family literacy model including married parents, cohabitating parents, single parents, and extended families rearing children.
As mentioned above, research conducted by Tichnor-Wagner et al., 2016 is almost the polar opposite of Chaney (2014) and Jarrett (2015). However, additional research conducted by Babuder & Kavkler (2014), and Waldfogel (2012) also approach the poverty, illiteracy, and race link from a deficit-based perspective utilizing qualitative methods and the results support Tichnor et al., 2016 research discoveries that outside factors such as poverty, lack of parental help and support, survival, low socioeconomic status, and even violence all negatively affect literary success. Tichnor-Wagner et al., 2016 and Waldfogel (2012) each examine environmental factors that are detrimental in the literacy department to impoverished children.
Waldfogel (2012), however, explores the literacy gap issue as it relates to socioeconomic statuses within the Hispanic, African American, and immigrant communities and finds that this is not an easy task to disentangle differences in socioeconomic status along with other factors associated with ethnicity, culture, and/or race. Particularly, Waldfogel (2012) research suggests that the reason for the black-white gap in early literary success has to do with parenting and poor health, which attributed to low socioeconomic status. Babuder & Kevkler (2014) take a look at this phenomenon from a global perspective and the findings are similar to that of Tichnor-Wagner et al., 2016 and Waldfogel (2012). These works hone in on the home environment of children struggling in literacy and their lack of access to resources, poor parental influence, low socioeconomic status, and poor health outcome due to the effects of poverty.
Specifically, Tichnor-Wagner et al., 2016 focused on rural families and their inability to access literary rich material such as books, means for travels (for library visits), and in-home computer. In rural communities, there is a scarcity of social supports and infrastructure like social programs, childcare, public transportation, and development opportunities for teachers. Additionally, Tichnor-Wagner et al., 2016 found that the less education a mother has, the more likely her children are to have reading disabilities and increased chances for illiteracy.
In alignment with Tichnor-Wagner et al., 2016, Babuder & Kavkler (2014) acknowledges a myriad of deficits in impoverished communities in Slovenia but asserts that it is difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of illiteracy. Even as Babuder & Kavkler (2014) offer a global perspective on this phenomenon, culprits of illiteracy and poverty bare striking resemblance to those found in Tichnor-Wagner et al., 2016 research. Even as parents do everything within their power to give their children the best advantage they can, limited resources may still stand in the way of literary success (Babuder & Kavkler, 2014). This study compared two groups of children: low income children with reading disabilities and low-income children without reading disabilities. Confirming the research of Tichnor-Wagner et al., 2016, Babuder & Kavkler (2014) found that higher parental education directly translated to decreased rates of illiteracy of low-income children.
Solutions for Social Workers
While it may be generally understood that there is a strong correlational relationship between poverty, literacy, and African Americans, community leaders and social workers alike should be made aware of what can be done locally and domestically to remedy this problem (Evans et al., 2016). We developed an approach that is radically conservative, using classic rhymes and stories that have succeeded for centuries, and radically innovative, allowing the children themselves to take a major role in solving problems (Evans et al., 2016, p. 212). This solutions-based approach, rather than attempting to reconstitute teachers’ classroom behavior, allows teachers to utilize a disc or CD that helps children become more efficient at reading comprehension via listening to classic stories, speaking and listening to rhymes, and completing written tasks. What is most surprising about this research is not only its effectiveness in drastically improving literacy scores, but the fact that improvements help up over time without diminishing once students advanced to third grade (Evan et al., 206).
Similar to the research conducted by Evans et al., 2016, Engelbrecht (2008) sought solutions to the poverty, racism, and illiteracy problems facing the citizens of sub-Saharan Africa. Like Babuder & Kavkler, (2014), Engelbrecht (2008) offers a global solution-based perspective regarding this aforementioned issue for social workers. A total of ten social workers were interviewed and given an opportunity to discuss implementations that would combat the poverty and illiteracy crises (Engelbrecht, 2008). Whereas American social workers would more than likely include increased employment opportunities among intervention methods (Chaney, 2014), the 10 social workers in this study cited increased job opportunities or job creation as a crippling mechanism that perpetuates dependence on the government as opposed to self-sufficiency (Engelbrecht, 2008). Instead, the social workers propose Social Community Education as a means of decreasing poverty rates and illiteracy (Engelbrecht, 2008). Social Community Education is action-driven, situation specific, relevant to culture, locally responsive, and works by developing citizens’ economic literacy (Engelbrecht, 2008).
Each presented article presents findings that confirm previous research regarding literacy and poverty, and African Americans. This is a research topic that deserves to be revisited and discussed until this is no longer a problem in the United States. The fact that America is one of the wealthiest countries period, but specifically in terms of resources and food, is what makes the illiteracy, poverty, and racism phenomenon so tragic. Social workers are the voice of the voiceless and defenseless and so long as there is grave social injustice such this, advocacy and solution-based research must continue as social workers work each day to end literary disparities.