A literacy crisis will persist for generations unless progress is accelerated in preparing young children for kindergarten and helping more adult residents secure at least a high school education. Put simply, children unprepared for kindergarten are less likely to read proficiently by the end of third grade – a predictor of later success in school. And adults without a high school diploma lack the basic literacy and other skills required to access in-demand jobs that offer paths to prosperity.
Our Labor Force Participation
There are over 3,141 counties, or county equivalents, in the United States. Initially, our rankings look very good. Cuyahoga is the 34th largest county in population and fields the 38th largest workforce in the nation. From here, numbers begin to slide. The county ranks 2,557th in the nation (1 being the best) on the percentage of adults with a high school diploma. We are also 1,556th among all counties on the percentage of adults with less than a high school diploma. While we ranked 829th in median household income in 2000, today we are 1,817th. Cuyahoga County’s labor force participation for 25 and older is 78.2% but for adults with less than a high school diploma, participation is 50.6%. Those who are both out of work and lack a high school diploma or equivalent total 17,700 persons and it is estimated that over 7,000 are looking for work.
Cuyahoga County’s labor force participation for 25 and older is 78.2%, but for adults with less than a high school diploma, participation is 50.6%.
While the high school diploma or equivalent remains the “gateway”, additional skills are critical for earning a living or family-sustaining wage. Since Cuyahoga’s household income has dropped nearly 1,000 places among counties and we field a large workforce, something must be amiss.
In fact, two critical factors in this disparity are:
- Team NEO, in partnership with the Cleveland Foundation and the support of Sherwin-Williams, produced the report Aligning Opportunities in Northeast Ohio: A Resource to Aid in Addressing the Demand and Supply Imbalance in the Region’s Workforce. Team NEO identified 19 professional and technical occupations that showed substantial demand. Many were offering family-sustaining wages and held the promise for future employment and income. Almost all, however, required some type of professional and technical training or postsecondary credential.
- Robert Gleeson at Cleveland State’s Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs cites the second problem. He notes that “despite considerable success in traditional sectors, state and local initiatives have not yet achieved two critically important economic development goals for Cuyahoga County residents:
- Restore Growth to U.S. Averages: the rates of job growth and population growth in Cuyahoga County continue to lag U.S. and regional averages.
- Improve Social Equity: too many individuals and families in Cuyahoga County, especially African-Americans, struggle to escape poverty within City neighborhoods and inner-ring suburbs.” 
What Does All of This Cost Us?
Low literacy and skill deficiency costs not only the individual but also society and in more than lost wages and taxes. As low literacy and poverty are inexorably intertwined, the true cost must include health and human services as well as lost income. These costs are calculated over a lifetime and the results are staggering. Let’s examine this impact on one segment of our society: our young adults.
Each year a disengaged youth stays unemployed results in an economic loss of $44,158.
A recent report by the Center for Community Solutions, Youth Opportunities Unlimited, and Towards Employment looks at Cuyahoga County’s 21,000 disengaged youth between age 16 and 24. While many have graduated from high school, all remain unconnected to the workforce and further education; “…many disengaged youth grew up in impoverished neighborhoods, attended low-performing schools, faced challenging family circumstances and may have few positive experiences with education and social service systems.” The study cites an estimate that for every year a disengaged youth stays unemployed there is a cost of $44,158 from wages, tax revenue, increased public assistance and social services, as well as other societal costs. The economic loss from all disengaged youth is $927 million a year. If all the disengaged youth in Cuyahoga County today were to stay disengaged from age 25 on, the cost would accelerate to a lifetime sum of $20 billion. Though disengaged youth are found throughout the county, over 11,000 live in Cleveland, 60% of which live in poverty.
What if we focused on the economic benefit of earning a high school diploma, or equivalent, for 100 “out of work” adults? Their combined salaries would be $2,775,100 and they would pay $445,400 in taxes every year for up to 40 years, plus inflation adjustments. That is not the full story though. Increased income could result in annual savings of between $700,000 to $900,000 in services and Medicaid. For the adult, post-secondary completion has additional benefits beyond increased income including higher levels of civic engagement, self-esteem, and confidence.
But… What if we did nothing?
Using a landmark 2007 study by Mark A. Cohen at Vanderbilt University, each person who lacks a high school diploma will eventually cost the community between $243,000 and $388,000 dollars in external costs. That’s not lost income on their part; it’s a cost the community pays. Considering the over 101,000 persons in the county without a high school diploma, multiply the above figure by a hundred thousand. If they become involved in drugs or crime, the cost becomes astonishing. The external costs for lifetime offenders run well into the millions.
What Can Be Done?
The 2017 Local Workforce Plan for OhioMeansJobs Cleveland/Cuyahoga County has prioritized services to residents and businesses where workforce participation rates are below the desired goal of 64.1%, not surprisingly in the areas where low literacy and high poverty persist, with an aspirational goal to increase the labor force by 24,000 people. 
Recently, researchers from the U.S. Census and Harvard and Brown Universities created The Opportunity Atlas of all census tracts capable of predicting future outcomes for children by virtue of where they live. The Atlas covers every census tract in the nation.  What does it show? There is a very real risk that low literacy in Cuyahoga County will remain generational among our most impoverished and low-literate citizens unless progress is made at both ends of the spectrum. We need to both accelerate the preparation of young children for kindergarten and help adult residents secure at least a high school education, additional skills and meaningful employment.
An assessment of the state of literacy in Cuyahoga County done by The Literacy Cooperative (TLC) found:
- 42% of all children enrolling in kindergarten in the 2018-19 school year were not adequately prepared to succeed
- 10% of all adults didn’t have a high school diploma as of 2017
- Nearly 40% of those without a high school diploma are ages 18-44
TLC and its partners are working with programs such as Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, a monthly book-gifting initiative that mails books to young children from birth to age five and Aspire for adults, the state of Ohio’s adult education programs. Efforts such as contextualized curriculum that blend academics and job-related skills are becoming increasingly effective.
Most promising of all are new two-generational (2Gen) projects and programs, involving both children and adults in a family, that are being developed by a TLC-led committee of over 20 educational and human service agencies. Most significantly, the committee has issued 2Gen Cuyahoga: A Community Call to Action to Address Our Economic and Social Gaps  on how this collaboration will work to improve social inequities on a whole family basis.
Together, efforts such as these will continue to confront low literacy, open new economic opportunities for Cuyahoga County, and lead to a bright future. Let’s say that we effectively reach the 7,000 adults without a high school diploma, who are out of the workforce but looking for work. What immediate and long-term impact might that have for the community?
How Can You Help? Contact Us!
You can help increase the economic outcome of literacy in our community.
- Donate to The Literacy Cooperative to assist us in continuing to work to advance literacy. Donations bring books to the homes of children, introduce promising practices to educators for use in their classrooms, and publish curriculum to assist adults to advance in career pathways.
- Contact The Literacy Cooperative to inquire about workplace programs that can assist employees advance their skills. The success of any business depends upon the skills of its employees. Low literacy can affect safety, productivity, customer service and even employee morale. Employers investing in advancing the skills of their employees can reduce loss and increase profit.