Adult Literacy and Poverty
Adult literacy has a significant impact on a person’s ability to break the cycle of poverty for themselves and their family. Illiteracy limits economic opportunities, inhibits a parent’s ability to properly care for their children and often perpetuates the cycle of poverty. There are currently 781 million illiterate adults worldwide, a problem that is most prevalent in developing regions such as South Asia and Africa.1
With limited job opportunities, illiterate adults are often restricted to manual labor jobs that yield meager incomes.
Many daily wage laborers in developing countries are among the 736 million people worldwide, as of 2015, who earn $1.90 a day or less.2 For every year of education, earnings typically increase by 10 percent, and perhaps even more in low-income countries or for women.3
The world’s lowest literacy rates are among women in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.4
Their illiteracy affects not only their economic opportunities but also their ability to care for their children. If they can’t read warning labels, they may unintentionally harm their children or fail to take proper precautions with hazardous materials, or they may be oblivious to important medical information regarding their children’s health. As a result, adult literacy improves child mortality rates.5 When a child’s mother can read, that child is 50 percent more likely to survive past the age of 5.6 Children are also 24 percent less likely to be malnourished.7
Adult health is also impacted by their education.
According to the World Literacy Foundation, people who are illiterate, or have low levels of literacy, “are more likely to experience adverse health outcomes, have poor health literacy, and practice poor health behaviors.”8 With frequent illness comes decreased income for the many daily wage laborers who don’t get paid when they can’t work, which can promote poverty and its continuation.
In this way, and others, illiteracy affects people’s everyday lives and can contribute to their poverty.
Illiterate adults may be vulnerable to exploitation at the market because they can’t read or perform simple calculations, or in business transactions because they can’t read contracts. They may have trouble navigating from city to city, to find work or conduct other personal business, because they can’t read signs or bus schedules.
These hindrances often bring shame and negatively affects people’s self-confidence, which may engender a defeated spirit that can prevent them from even hoping for a better future.
This attitude often perpetuates the cycle of poverty as it is passed down to future generations.
Impoverished children who are stuck in generational poverty may not even consider the possibilities of achieving a better future. If their parents and grandparents before them were poor, why should life be any different for them?
The cycle is also often prolonged by parents’ lack of education, which is a dominant predictor of whether one generation will pass cyclical poverty on to the next.9
Uneducated themselves, parents may neglect to prioritize their children’s education. They may not recognize its importance, or they may simply be unable to afford it. If children do attend school, illiterate parents are helpless to assist their children in their studies, and children who struggle in their studies are more likely to drop out of school.
One of the many ways GFA World empowers people to rise out of poverty is through adult literacy classes.
In developing countries, such as those where GFA missionaries serve, the greatest need for literacy is typically among women. Over the years, thousands of women have learned how to read and write through GFA World’s literacy program. For many of these women, gaining literacy has been a dream come true.
Mandeepa, for example, grew up in an impoverished family.10
She never had the chance to go to school. Instead, she started working at the age of 13 to help her mother—who became a widow when Mandeepa was just 3—support the family. She longed to be able to read. After Mandeepa became a mother, she was grateful her daughter could attend school, but it pained Mandeepa that she was unable to help her with any of her schoolwork. Then Mandeepa attended a GFA literacy class and gained the treasure she had long desired. This gift of literacy opened up a whole new world for Mandeepa.
Likewise, Preshti was unable to attend school as a child.11
As an adult, she had trouble navigating her way to neighboring cities because she couldn’t read the signs. She also struggled to pay bills, board the correct bus, check her earnings or count the change she received at the market. After learning to read and write through a GFA literacy class, Preshti overcame these challenges, and her confidence soared. Preshti went on to start a small business, enabling her to provide a better future for her family.
Gaetane’s illiteracy caused her constant shame.12
She dreamed of being able to read God’s Word to her children. She had been forced to drop out of school as a child because of her family’s poverty, but she still yearned to read and write. The older she became, the more her dream seemed an impossible one. Then she learned of a GFA literacy class in her area. By the end of the class, Gaetane was able to read and write the alphabet and her name! Gaetane was thrilled and continued to develop her reading skills. Soon, she was able to read the Holy Scriptures for herself and others. Her shame was replaced with joy and newfound confidence as her dream was realized at last.
1 Giovetti, Olivia. “6 Benefits of Literacy in the Fight Against Poverty.” Concern Worldwide US. https://www.concernusa.org/story/benefits-of-literacy-against-poverty/. August 27, 2020.
2 “Ending Poverty.” United Nations. https://www.un.org/en/global-issues/ending-poverty. Accessed December 28, 2021.
3 Rodriguez, Leah. “Understanding How Poverty is the Main Barrier to Education.” Global Citizen. https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/poverty-education-satistics-facts/. February 6, 2020.
4 “Literacy Rates Continue to Rise from One Generation to the Next.” UNESCO Institute for Statistics. http://uis.unesco.org/sites/default/files/documents/fs45-literacy-rates-continue-rise-generation-to-next-en-2017_0.pdf. September 2017.
5 Staesser, Daniel. “The Benefits of Literacy: Five Ways Literacy Fights Poverty.” The Borgen Project. https://borgenproject.org/the-benefits-of-literacy-5-ways-literacy-fights-poverty/. May 5, 2018.
6 “Global poverty and education.” Children International. https://www.children.org/global-poverty/global-poverty-facts/facts-about-world-poverty-and-education. Accessed August 24, 2021.
7 Staesser, Daniel. “The Benefits of Literacy: Five Ways Literacy Fights Poverty.” The Borgen Project. https://borgenproject.org/the-benefits-of-literacy-5-ways-literacy-fights-poverty/. May 5, 2018.
8 “Why Literacy?” World Literacy Foundation. https://worldliteracyfoundation.org/why-literacy/. Accessed August 23, 2021.
9 Rodriguez, Leah. “Understanding How Poverty is the Main Barrier to Education.” Global Citizen. https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/poverty-education-satistics-facts/. February 6, 2020.
10 “Literacy: Something to be Treasured.” GFA World. https://www.gfa.org/news/articles/literacy-something-to-be-treasured-wfr17-19/. September 2017.
11 “Literacy Opens Business Opportunities for Woman.” GFA World. https://gospelforasia-reports.org/2020/08/literacy-opens-business-opportunities-woman/. August 13, 2020.
12 “Literacy Class Builds Woman’s Confidence, Faith.” GFA World. https://gospelforasia-reports.org/2021/07/literacy-class-builds-womans-confidence-faith/. July 29, 2021.