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N.J. illiteracy rate / Shocking figures

The Press of Atlantic City

Pass six people on the streets of New Jersey and, statistically, one of them won’t be able to read or write English at even the most basic level.

Fact is, according to a report issued last week by the National Center for Education Statistics, New Jersey and Georgia tie for the sixth-worst illiteracy rate in the nation – a shocking 17 percent. Even worse, the rates are higher in Atlantic and Cumberland counties, with illiteracy rates of 18 percent and 21 percent, respectively.

Although the problem is hardly limited to immigrants, they undoubtedly form a significant part of New Jersey’s illiteracy figures. Some immigrants learn how to communicate well enough to get by in a job, but never learn to read and write English. That holds them back from fully participating in society, in the workforce and in the culture of America.

Much has been said about how best to integrate New Jersey’s substantial number of foreign-born workers into the economy – and a lot more is coming. Gov. Jon S. Corzine’s Blue Ribbon Advisory Panel on Immigration Policy has finalized its report on the subject. Although those recommendations have not yet been made public, there is already heated opposition to what might be recommended: giving undocumented immigrants some kind of identification to drive, and allowing them access to lower, in-state tuition costs for New Jersey colleges.

Whatever the arguments for and against such hot-button measures, it would seem much more valuable to spend political capital and scarce state dollars on what would unquestionably help immigrants – legal or illegal – to integrate into society: reading and writing English. We would hope the report, expected to be issued in the next few weeks, contains some recommendations that focus on what the state can do to increase literacy among foreign-born workers.

Still, government programs and grants may not even survive the next state budget, let alone see increases. That’s why in this area – like so many others where contracting state revenues are forcing cuts in government spending – it is critical that private-sector, charitable and volunteer groups fill in the gaps. Fortunately, the number of people signing up to become unpaid literacy tutors is rising. The largest-ever group of volunteers just graduated from the Literacy Volunteers Association Cape-Atlantic. The volunteer job requires patience and commitment, but the rewards are great. And in New Jersey, the need is surprisingly great as well.

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