Women improving the Washington DC Community since 1912

October 2012

The Literacy Challenge

By Bill Halamandaris, Chairman and Co-Founder, The Heart of America Foundation  


Reading is the keystone skill, the foundation of a successful life. 

The statistics reinforcing this point and the consequences of illiteracy are staggering:

  • Fifty percent of the nation’s chronically unemployed are not functionally literate. 
  • Forty three percent of adults at the lowest level of literacy proficiency live in poverty compared with four percent of adults with strong literacy skills.
  • More than one million children drop out of school each year, costing the nation over $240 billion in lost earnings, forgone tax revenues, and expenditures for social services.
  • Seventy-five percent of school dropouts have reading problems. 
  • Children in the poorest families are six times as likely as children in more affluent families to drop out of school, creating a vicious cycle of poverty and illiteracy. 
  • Eighty-five percent of all juveniles who encounter the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate, as are 70 percent of all prison inmates. 
  • So strong is the link between literacy and being a useful member of society that many states consider fourth grade-level reading statistics in projecting future prison construction.  

So, if the literacy challenge is that compelling, what do we do about it?  A problem of this depth and dimension does not yield to simple solutions. 

Answering the literacy challenge will take a coordinated response from every segment of our society. There is a role for parents, teachers, social advocates, community organizations - like the Junior League – charities - like The Heart of America Foundation – employers, the media, and the government at all levels.  It is too large a problem for any individual answer, too complex for any one organization to resolve.  

But in all this chaos and complexity there is one simple, salient fact everyone can understand and address:  Access to printed material is the single most critical variable affecting a student’s ability to read.  The availability of reading material is the strongest predictor of literacy and academic achievement.   

Pure and simple, it’s hard to learn to read without something to read.  

Children in poverty - those most likely to read below grade level - have an average of 1-2 age-appropriate books at home.  More than 60% of low-income families have no books at all in their homes for their children, while the average number of age-appropriate children’s books in middle-class homes is said to exceed 50 and the average number in high-income homes approaches 200.  

Compounding this problem is that fact that many of the children with limited access to books at home face limited access to books at school as well.  On average, schools nationwide have 18 books per student in their libraries.  In the District of Columbia and adjacent communities in Maryland and Virginia where the poverty rate is nearly double the national average many school libraries have an average of less than one book per student.

Ten years ago, The Heart of America Foundation created Books From The Heart to address this great need.  Books From The Heart™ (BFTH) finds books that are not being used and gets them to where they’re needed most...into the hands of poor children and onto the empty shelves at school libraries.  Three years later, The Heart of America created a sister program - READesign - to address the school’s reading environment.  

READesign revitalizes elementary school libraries, turning dreary and depressed facilities into warm and engaging places that create a love of reading.   Each themed READesign library makeover  – more than 200 to date – includes vibrant paint, murals or original paintings by a nationally recognized artist, new furniture, and 2,000 new, high-quality library books. 

Beyond that, READesign brings the pieces together by creating community, engaging volunteers and corporate team members in service, supporting reading through the library revitalization process, distributing books, and participating in reading activities with children.

Our vision is simple.  Focus on the child.  Build community by asking those who have to help those less fortunate.  Surround kids in need with books – at home, in their school library, and in the classroom.  Create an engaging, supportive reading environment, one that encourages reading by word and action. 

We believe there is no more compelling cause and are heartened by the knowledge the Junior League shares our commitment.  Answering the literacy challenge is essential for the health and future of our society.