Loss of literacy programs should spark concern among civic leaders

By Dennis Archambault

The demise of the Reading Works program  is an unfortunate consequence of the coronavirus pandemic. Many non-profits that aren’t directly connected with pandemic relief efforts have been struggling to raise funds. Literacy programs may not be considered “essential,”  but the ability to read and comprehend basic language is a critical component of the social determinants of health. If you can’t read, you will have difficulty with health literacy. If you can’t read, you are likely to misunderstand a medical diagnosis or treatment. Understanding why you need to do certain things to maintain or promote health is yet another level of health literacy.

Reading Works was established because the Detroit Free Press, one of the state’s largest news media companies, together with corporate and philanthropic leaders, realized that Detroit’s low level of literacy — somewhere around 40 to 50 percent of the city’s adult population is at low literacy levels — is not just a cultural problem, but the problem of productivity and quality in the workforce. It may not simply be “the right thing to do” for altruistic purposes, it is the right thing to do for the economy.

Literacy at all levels is essential for a high functioning society. Early learners through adult education need to be grounded in literacy and critical thinking if we want to attain a healthy community. People reluctant to accept the coronavirus vaccine need to understand it and reason through it. People with chronic disease can attain a level of wellness by adhering to medical treatment and lifestyle adjustment – but they need to understand it and why it’s important to do it. Even in a pandemic, funders, corporate partners, and individual donors should view literacy as an “essential” social investment.

Authority Health’s medical residents, through the Community Medicine rotation, are helping through the “Wash and Learn” program. Residents meet customers at laundromats and talk with them about medical concerns. Our clinical staff is also working with Hope Academy to improve its health literacy programming. But health literacy is a massive social problem that takes vision and leadership at the highest levels of government, as well as civic leaders at the community level. We need to focus on life-sustaining efforts and bolstering essential services during a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, but it seems that there still is plenty of wealth available to invest in literacy. The health and economic well-being of the region depends on it.

Dennis Archambault is vice president of Public Affairs for Authority Health.