26.8.08

GOVERNMENT FAILURE? Hurricane recovery confronts low literacy rate.
Three years after Katrina, residents of New Orleans are still buried in a blizzard of government paperwork. But for thousands of storm victims seeking federal aid, the challenge is made more difficult by a little-known obstacle: More than 40 percent of the city's adults lack the literacy skills to comprehend basic government forms. And recovery programs have done little to ease the burden.
That 40 percent is a substantial number of people.

Rachel B. Nicolosi, program director for the Literacy Alliance of Greater New Orleans, estimates that as many as 100,000 people from New Orleans may have had assistance delayed, or they never applied for help at all, because they could not read the documents.

"It's a paramount issue. The rules are almost indecipherable for everyone," said Davida Finger, a staff attorney for Loyola University's New Orleans College of Law, which has helped 1,000 people seek rebuilding aid, nearly all of whom had trouble understanding the forms.

Simplicity is not necessarily a virtue.

But some government officials say too much plain language can leave out vital information.

"I concede the point that those who are functionally illiterate, they would have challenges with any form," said Brian Sullivan, a spokesman for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He said the agency has trained all of its 37 staff members in New Orleans to help "those with literacy disabilities."

The National Adult Literacy Survey indicates that 25 percent of U.S. adults read at the lowest functional level, meaning, for example, that they can locate an expiration date on a driver's license but cannot fill out most motor-vehicle forms.

The failure of the government schools to produce literacy is in some cases deliberate.

The papers were so confusing that Thomas Wright drove three hours from Mississippi to talk to Road Home outreach workers.

Wright, a retired auto mechanic, graduated from high school in the 1950s and later took shop classes to get his mechanics' license. But when it came to the Road Home forms, he had to enlist friends.

"I needed help from educated people," said Wright, who is black and remembers the segregation of the city school system.

"We got your second-hand books, with half the pages torn out," he said.

The government schools of that era deliberately slighted Mr Wright. What excuse the deaducation establishment will offer for younger people also slighted remains to be seen.
Wright's generation is not the only one that's struggling. According to the Louisiana Department of Education, 42 percent of students who graduated from high school in New Orleans in 2004 had "unsatisfactory" English scores. And more than one in 10 students dropped out of high school.
I award Quote of the Day to the reaction of one man so slighted.

[Henry Lee] Burton, who earns $24,000 a year as a Wal-Mart tire shop worker, said the only assistance he received was a $3,500 payout from his renter's insurance. Two years passed before he could gather up the courage to go to the office and tell his agent he did not fully understand letters from the insurance company.

Now he has a different plan: to learn to read well enough so he does not need help.

"It's something I've always wanted to do and something I need to do," he said. "You really can't depend on the government anyway. You have to do it yourself."

I have the Democratic Convention going as background noise. So far, despite this being Hillary's night, nothing about The Village equipping its young people with the Habits of Effective People, something the New Orleans and Louisiana governments clearly failed to do.

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