A Quiet & Destructive Illiteracy Crisis

Adult and child illiteracy rates, especially in low-income populations, are already too high. Imagine what the pandemic is doing to that ...

a #BlackEdChat feature

It’s not a prominent headline as it should be, but America is facing an illiteracy crisis. As if there aren’t enough crises to manage already. But, the crisis of illiteracy - particularly adult functional illiteracy - is a problem that eats away at the very core of any civic society struggling to achieve a democratic normalcy. If a nation’s people cannot read, how do they contribute to society? How productive can they be? Employers aren’t in the habit of employing illiterate employees, and those who are functionally illiterate (who are able-bodied, but can’t read) have effectively locked themselves out of most, if not all, marketplaces. If that’s happening at a mass scale, that’s a recipe for broader societal breakdown.

Yet, currently, an estimated 54 percent of adults between the ages of 16 to 65 are reading below a 6th grade level - nearly 20 percent of that number are at “the lowest levels of literacy,” according to U.S. Department of Education data. In fact, the number of adults reading above a 6th grade level actually declined by two percentage points between 2014 and 2017. A deeper glimpse into these numbers show a crisis brewing at an exponential rate policymakers either continue to ignore or are aware of yet fail to highlight.

The State of Adult Literacy

The National Center for Education Statistics shows

The United States is just several points above the international reading proficiency average - but, one wonders what this picture will look like after the pandemic. Achievement gaps are widening as families and households unable to adapt to the coronavirus environment, economically and academically, are finding themselves crushed by ill-equipped school systems …

Literacy Rates By State & County

Here’s a look at where illiteracy is more intense by state, based on NCES data. Generally speaking, we see high literacy in the North to Northwest and lower literacy in the South to Southwest …

The bottom 25 percent states share similar demographic characteristics in that they are places containing the highest concentrations of Black and Latino populations. Five of the bottom 25 percent states - Texas, Florida, New York, Georgia and California - are the top 5 ranked states with the highest Black population totals. Four of the bottom 25 percent states - California, Texas, Florida, New York - are the top 4 ranked states with the highest Latino population totals. A racial pattern emerges as we look at Top 10 and Bottom 10 in terms of counties …

Adult Literacy Rates by Race

Here’s what’s found in the last Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) report from 2016 (examining 2012 to 2014 data) …

While White “low English literacy” rates are high, they’re not high compared to their overall percentage or proportion of the U.S. population. However, the rates are very disproportionate and troubling among Black and Latino adults.

Reading Achievement Gaps

Let’s take a look at the latest reading proficiency data by race from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Nation’s Report Card. This will show reading proficiency scores at 4th, 8th and 12th grade …

Across all grade levels, Black 4th, 8th and 12th graders are showing the lowest reading proficiency rates compared to their peers in all other major racial demographic groups. We’re getting a sense of how early this starts and begin to ask valid questions about exactly how school systems are addressing this. It’s possible 2020 data will show even worse indicators. A recent Center for American Progress report displays these gaps in a much more vivid and alarming way when comparing Black, White and Latino reading proficiency …

The Cost

A joint Gallup and Barbara Bush Foundation report released in September shows that the economy would actually gain back $2.2 trillion in lost economic growth if illiteracy were eradicated. That figure is approximately 10 percent of national Gross Domestic Product. Here’s what that gain in GDP would look like across various states …

More interesting is income level by literacy level …

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We Need to Remix How We Collect Data

We need to reconsider the units of measurements we're using to assess how certain groups are doing compared to others

Dr. G.S. Potter | Contributing Editor

Special insights heard daily at #RealityCheck on WURD every Mon - Thur, 10am - 1pm ET LIVE at wurdradio.com or WURD TV (11.25.20 edition). Wear your B|E. Support and expand an independent BEnote w/monthly/annual subscriptions(along w/exclusives)!

Lately, I’ve started to understand more clearly an underdeveloped thought on the collection of statistics. A lot of this has to do with how race and racism influence how that takes place.

One of the most dramatic differences between how White folks culturally operate and how people of color operate is that White folks are militantly individualistic. In fact, American society is built on a rugged individualism. This occurs both philosophically and politically. Increasingly so that as that mindset accelerates, capitalism (de)evolves.

That form of thought facilitates distorted scientific thought like eugenics and white male supremacy - or, what’s been popularly referred to as "survival of the fittest." It's all really misleading, though. Yet, because much of the formulas and data collection methods we use were developed by actual eugenecists, the statistical form of analysis is rooted in individualistic and white nationalist thought process. We never stop to think how that’s forming the backbone of how we collect data even though, on the surface, it just looks like numbers and symbols. 

This individualistic Whiteness is deep in the algorithms and flows atop more surface level issues as well. One of the most problematic units of measurement, in my opinion, is the insistance that the individual is the most relevant variable of analysis. 

People of color, naturally, just don't roll that way. Indigenous folks are connected as peoples or are rooted in collectivism. Black folks are connected as extended families. Latinx folks still live on through interwoven and inter-generational lifestyles.

So, for example, it’s difficult for mainstream thought and discourse to understand things like the spread of the coronavirus, the depth of poverty, and various political assumptions. What’s problematic about that is we then can’t develop viable solutions and defensive measures without rooting our analysis at the level of the household, the community, or the family unit: How many families have experienced COVID? How many families have absorbed or been exposed to bruising economic hits? How many families have experienced gun violence? How many families are illiterate?

This is especially important in the debate over the current dysfunction in education, amid pandemic, when we are trying to support families, not just students. And these families are more than just parents or people who happen to live in the same households as the students. They are nodes of community networks. 

Even where the individual is a level of analysis, I think there is much undone work in recognizing that in the cases of single parents or non-English speaking immigrants, the individual isn't treated as a whole. That individual is expected to carry additional burdens than an individual of privilege. We need to identify different types of individuals and analyze accordingly.

How we achieve this is a big question. Still, if we dramatically shift how we view our units of analysis, we can better defend ourselves and advance our goals. 

The Case for a Coalition Government

Instead of a two-party formula that always balances out to zero, what if we reversed engineered our constitution to convert to a coalition government?

Stefan Hankin | a feature from The Experiment

Special insights heard daily at #RealityCheck on WURD every Mon - Thur, 10am - 1pm ET LIVE at wurdradio.com or WURD TV (11.25.20 edition). Wear your B|E. Support and expand an independent BEnote w/monthly/annual subscriptions (along w/exclusives)!

Many political norms have been shattered over the last four years, but gridlock in D.C. was not one of them. Washington’s inability to govern is wreaking havoc across the country and we will likely be feeling the consequences far into the future. Thanks to rampant hyper-partisanship, even the policies that are overwhelmingly popular will never become law. Feeble legislative attempts to address the coronavirus pandemic, the climate crisis, and our broken healthcare system are costing human lives. Our once dominant economic status is declining, and we are unprepared to deal with fast-coming changes to the global economy. 

If that doesn’t make you scared enough, we are facing starkly increasing wage and wealth gaps that any historian will tell you typically ends with heads in a basket. Our friends across the Atlantic would surely be happy to share a history lesson on the relationship between economic inequality, guillotines, and regime change. 

On top of all this, and really because of all this, Western countries are dealing with the heightened influence of populist right-wing movements. From Brexit in the UK, to the AfD in Germany, Marine Le Penn in France, and Trumpism at home, these closed-border, anti-immigrant, purity movements are dangerous for these countries as well as the world at large. 

Given our current moments of crisis, it is vital that we have a functioning government. However, if the status quo remains and both Democratic Senate candidates do not pull through in the Georgia runoffs, the Republican controlled Senate will likely continue to be the nightmare it has been since 2015. Washington will be in a stalemate and the American people will suffer.

Clearly, Our System is Broken.

What we have now is a tottering two-party system. On one side, the Republican Party has been utterly gutted by Trumpism. Rather than standing up to the President and his devotees, the party swung all the way to the far right, destroying its platform and losing its morals along the way. The GOP today has no actual polices other than slashing taxes, getting rid of regulation, and supporting Donald Trump. However, not all Republicans were created equal. Some party members (most of whom are now former party members) have actively campaigned against President Trump, but a much larger number have watched on the sidelines as their party took a nosedive. The latter group is driven by a chronic fear of pissing off their base and subsequently losing their jobs in the next Republican primary. 

As is the case for the GOP, the Democratic Party has seen better days. The eagerly anticipated “blue wave” did not materialize. It would be easy to point to the structural issues we face as the source of all progressive woes, but the disturbing reality is that nearly 50 percent of this country voted for Trump after four years of racist nonsense and incompetent leadership. Now, the moderate Democrats and the more progressive left are publicly brawling, a strategy which will work for no one. 

While the moderates berate the “defund the police” and “healthcare for all” rhetoric for having slimmed the Democratic majority in the house, progressives point to their grassroots organizing movements as having secured the Biden victory. We will know more about 2020 turnout as voter participation information continues to come in, but some things are already clear: both sides are correct. 

Democrats are members of a big tent party, and everyone needs to stop trying to squeeze each other out. Yes, moderate/swing districts are needed to have bigger House majorities - but at the same time, without minorities, younger Americans, and urban college educated liberals, there would be no President Biden in the White House. Said in another way, elected officials from liberal urban areas need to understand that many of the proposals that are an easy sell in their districts are a tougher sell in moderate to conservative districts. And elected officials in moderate suburban districts need to be aware of the fact that Black and Hispanic Americans are done with white people telling them what to do and being told that they should "just say things differently" in order to not put White politicians in an uncomfortable position.

We have two parties on the edge, albeit for different reasons, and a country that is in desperate need of leadership that can move it forward. Even with a 50-50 Senate, it is unlikely that Democrats could pull this off given the opposition from the GOP and the Democrats’ unwillingness to go nuclear in the Senate. 

A Disturbing Reality

The disturbing reality is that nearly 50 percent of this country’s voting electorate voted for Trump after four years of racist nonsense and incompetent leadership.

We need bold action, and tertiary agreements for small compromises are not going to get us there. It is time to consider a coalition style of governing akin to that of parliamentary systems across Europe. This arrangement would bring our nation forward by ending the long cycle of legislative stagnation, by allowing Congress to actually serve a majority of Americans, and by ending the pervasive “heads I win, tails you lose” mentality in Congress that has already done enough damage. 

A governing system based on coalitions may sound radical to anyone who has picked up an American newspaper in the last two decades, but it is entirely within the bounds of our democracy and is a reform we dearly need. Imagine: policymakers can vote how they please without fearing retribution from their party leaders; voters know they are electing independent thinkers who are accountable primarily to their constituents; it is easy for politicians to work together on policies they agree on even if they disagree on other issues. In a normal world, this would all be second nature, but sadly, ages have passed since our political system even resembled normalcy. 

It was not until Trumpism fractured the GOP beyond repair that a coalition driven government became a viable path forward. As we have argued, it is time to end the GOP and to create a new center-right party. In order for it to work, the alienated center-right faction of the GOP will have to walk away from their party and start a new apparatus. Outside of select elected officials, this group is currently best represented by the Lincoln Project, whose members have made it clear that they are no longer part of the GOP - but, they are not exactly comfortable with the Democrats, and they have the wherewithal to pull off setting up a new party. Within the Democratic Party, we already have a center-left party in addition to the traditional liberal faction championed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) in the House and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in the Senate. It is in the interest of these factions, the center-right, the center-left, and the left, as well as in the interest of the country that the three groups come together. 

A Governing System Based on Coalitions

A governing system based on coalitions may sound radical to anyone who has picked up an American newspaper in the last two decades.

For the center-right party, there is an opportunity to create a viable alternative to the MAGA party and to start fresh without the Trump baggage, which includes “principles” such as demonizing gay people and proliferating the zero taxes + fake news = #winning strategy. In contrast to the current GOP, this alternative party could have policies based on issues other than trying to protect minority rule in America.  

For the moderate or center-left faction of the Democratic Party, this coalition would give them the cover they need on their right flank and allows them to start working on and supporting legislation without the specter of being labeled a “socialist” (yes, this is a completely ridiculous claim, yet somehow Democrats have allowed it to become effective.) This moderate faction would also be the de facto arbiter of the coalition. 

For the liberal faction, important goals would be reached such as universal health coverage, a tightening wealth gap, and increased economic and physical security. While the methods used to achieve these goals might not be exactly what the left would like, it is tough to argue against the potential successes. Further, since we would accomplish these goals via a grand coalition, there is less of a chance that we will spend the next decade defending the policies in court (i.e., what happened to the Affordable Care Act, aka “Obamacare”).

There are a few initial steps that need to be successful for this idea to work and it won’t be easy.

First, there must be an agreement that the coalition will work towards the goals of universal health coverage, re-structuring our social safety net, protecting the environment, and increasing the ability for US companies to succeed. As has been discussed, we see a path forward for the coalition to reform healthcare and the social safety net, to break up tech monopolies, to simplify the tax code, to modernize our patent system, and to make the American worker more marketable both domestically and across the globe. At the end of the day, the coalition would be moving the focus away from protecting companies to protecting individuals. This not only would put Americans of all economic levels in a better place (a huge win for the left) but would also make American companies more competitive (a huge win for the center-right). There would additionally need to be an agreement that for as long as the collation lasts, social issues such as gay marriage, abortion rights etc, will be, at a minimum, held in place. 

Next, no members of the coalition, as long as they are acting in good faith, would face opposition from their ideological counterpart in their next election. For center-right members, this means no candidate from the left (either the center-left or far left) will run against them in the general election, leaving them to deal only with the far-right candidate who will invariably run. The same would be true for the center-left and liberal coalition members who would not have to run against a center-right candidate. This is not an ideal situation given the fact that we live in a democracy, but since our republic was set up to favor only two parties, we view this as a necessity.

Reverse Engineer a Parliamentary System

We need to find a way in today’s political climate to temporarily reverse engineer a parliamentary system. 

This coalition could be created immediately if there were a few senators willing to take the plunge. Senators Romney (R-UT), Collins (R-ME), and Murkowski (R-AK) come to mind. In the House, the Problem Solvers Caucus could be a good place to start. Then, in the 2022 election, ideally the coalition could be expanded, and in the 2024 Presidential election, the power share would continue with the presidential candidate coming from one faction and the vice president coming from a counterpart. Given the Democrats consistent advantage in the popular vote, it would have to be done under the Democratic Party with a Vice President from the Center Right party. Think a Kamala Harris-Charlie Baker ticket. This is not a dream ticket for the left, so a cabinet would need to be pre-determined to keep everyone reasonably happy (Treasury Secretary Elizabeth Warren as an example). 

The Founding Fathers prescient design of the US government ensured not only our nation’s longevity, but also the hurdles we face while trying to govern it. The Electoral College, the judicial system, and the Senate were all part of this design and were intended to impose checks on the popular will. However, these institutions have been coopted in the last few decades to suppress the voice of the majority of Americans and to make our country less competitive and less just. Though our institutions have proved capable of withstanding a civil war, several waves of enfranchisement, and, for the most part, the shock of the Trump presidency, hyper-partisanship is getting closer and closer to bringing everything crashing down. 

It is time to move forward together, to put an end to Trumpism, and to position ourselves as a world leader for the next century. We are already post-truth. Getting to post-partisan should not be that difficult.

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Republicans Did Not Lose Big in 2020

They still held onto statehouses and the power to influence future elections

Robin Best, Steve Lem | The Conversation

Special insights heard daily at #RealityCheck on WURD every Mon - Thur, 10am - 1pm ET LIVE at wurdradio.com or WURD TV (11.25.20 edition). Wear your B|E. Support and expand an independent BEnote w/monthly/annual subscriptions (and get exclusives)!

Election Day delivered a presidential victory for the Democratic Party and narrowed the partisan split in the U.S. House and Senate. But it was nevertheless a victory for Republicans in the battle every decade to draw state and congressional districts that favor their party.

Beginning in 2021, states will begin redrawing electoral boundaries for U.S. House districts and state legislative districts, using the results of the 2020 census to determine the partisan composition of Congress and statehouses through 2030.

Despite national Democratic success, the results of state legislative elections put Republicans in place to be the long-term winners of the election of 2020.

Legislative control is key

In most states, the legislature is responsible for drawing Congressional district boundaries, and it is common that the majority party draws the lines to give the advantage to its party members, a practice called gerrymandering. In most of these states, the governor can veto legislative maps, but it’s common to have a governor from the same party as dominates the legislature.

In the 2010 elections, Republicans gained unified control of 17 of the 30 legislatures that then had sole district mapmaking responsibility. And only two of those states, Minnesota and Missouri, had Democratic governors. All those legislatures, which collectively redrew 190 congressional districts, helped produce a congressional map that has been widely regarded as a pro-Republican gerrymander.

Republican-controlled legislatures in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, for example, produced maps that ultimately awarded Republicans with two-thirds of their state’s congressional seats despite the party capturing less than 50 percent of the statewide vote in the next federal election. These and similarly gerrymandered state maps helped the Republican Party maintain their 2010 majority in the House of Representatives, although Democratic candidates won a higher number of votes nationwide in 2012.

Republicans set to dominate redistricting

Republicans continue to dominate statehouses in the wake of the 2020 state legislative elections. Democrats had hoped to flip partisan control of at least one legislative chamber in states like North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota and Texas, where they could exert greater control over the upcoming redistricting process. But they didn’t flip any legislative chambers in their favor – and lost control of both chambers of the New Hampshire statehouse.

In the 2021 legislative season, Republicans will have unified control of 20 of the 28 legislatures that retain mapmaking responsibility. Democrats will control just seven. Power will be split only in Minnesota, where Republicans hold the majority in the Senate and Democrats control the House.

In seven states, Democrats will control the process, which will give them a smaller effect on the national congressional results. As a result of their greater control over district lines, Republicans may be advantaged in the 2022 House elections. But there are some forces that could counter the possibility of pro-Republican gerrymandering – including the states that have taken mapmaking power away from their partisan legislators.

The future of redistricting

In 2018, popular referenda in Colorado, Michigan and Utah created redistricting commissions that are independent from the legislatures. And in November 2020, Virginia voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to amend the Constitution to create a bipartisan redistricting commission composed of state legislators and citizens.

In addition, Democratic governors in states where Republicans control both legislative chambers, such as Kentucky, Louisiana, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, may veto plans that contain egregious partisan gerrymanders – which would likely throw mapmaking responsibility to the state courts.

There are also forces pushing to preserve more partisan redistricting processes. On Nov. 3, Missouri voters narrowly approved a provision that takes redistricting out of the hands of a nonpartisan demographer and places it instead in the hands of a political commission appointed by the governor.

The measure also says districts will be drawn according to the rule of “one person, one vote” – which some believe may mean Missouri will draw its districts not based on total population, but only on the number of eligible voters. That highlights a growing controversy about whether to count noncitizens and others who are ineligible to vote, rather than the total population, for the purposes of creating electoral districts. Using total population is the current method, followed since the nation’s founding.

People seeking to battle partisan gerrymandering can no longer seek help from federal courts, which are barred from taking those cases by a 2019 Supreme Court decision that declared federal courts couldn’t review claims of partisan gerrymandering.

Republicans may be poised to launch another round of partisan gerrymandered districts that will last another decade, but 2020 is not 2010. Fewer states will have legislators draw district lines. Democratic governors may keep Republican-dominanted legislatures in check. Grassroots movements and activist groups battling against partisan gerrymandering have attracted high-profile support, such as from Eric Holder, a former U.S. attorney general in the Obama administration.

Opposition to redistricting reforms – and specifically the adoption of redistricting commissions – may also intensify, illustrated by the adoption of Amendment 3 in Missouri and challenges to Michigan’s new redistricting commission. How these opposing forces will play out over the next decade is an open question, but we are certain they will combine to keep issues of partisan gerrymandering in the spotlight for the foreseeable future.

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#studyBE: Black People & Vaccines; Student Loan Debt & Race; On Thin Ice

What the editors of theBEnote.com are currently studying ....

Publisher’s Notes

Special insights heard daily at #RealityCheck on WURD every Mon - Thur, 10am - 1pm ET LIVE at wurdradio.com or WURD TV (11.24.20 edition). Wear your B|E. Keep theBEnote independent & free w/monthly/annual subscriptions (and get exclusives)!

“Coronavirus Vaccine Hesitancy in Black and Latinx Communities”

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Surveys have documented disproportionate disinclination among Black people in the United States to be vaccinated against the novel coronavirus – a cause of substantial concern for public health professionals given the Black population’s high rates of infection, hospitalization and death from COVID-19. This study delves deeply into these compunctions, relying on an unusually large, random national sample of Black Americans, a review of the literature on vaccine uptake and consultation with experts in the field. 

Confirming previous findings, fewer than half of Black adults, 48 percent, say they probably or definitely would get a coronavirus vaccine if it were available for free – including just 18 percent who definitely would get vaccinated. Among Latinx adults, interviewed for comparison, far more likely would get vaccinated, 66 percent, including 31 percent definitely.

Safety and trust concerns are pervasive in both groups – but their higher levels among Black people are key in these differing vaccination uptake intentions.


“Student Loans Weigh the Heaviest on Black and Hispanic Students”

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Student loan debt weighs more heavily on students of color than on their white counterparts.

For example, if you look only at four-year public colleges, an estimated 86.8 percent of Black students borrow federal student loans to attend, but just 59.9 percent of White students do the same, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

With rising tuition costs outpacing inflation and wage growth, many students are struggling to afford college. In fact, about 44 million Americans owe over $1.48 trillion in student loan debt.

But according to our in-depth analysis of data from Demos and NCES, Black and Hispanic students are paying more when it comes to student loans than White students.


“Increased Winter Drownings in Ice-Covered Regions with Warmer Winters”

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Winter activities on ice are culturally important for many countries, yet they constitute a high safety risk depending upon the stability of the ice. Because consistently cold periods are required to form stable and thick ice, warmer winters could degrade ice conditions and increase the likelihood of falling through the ice. This study provides the first large-scale assessment of winter drowning from 10 Northern Hemisphere countries. We documented over 4000 winter drowning events. Winter drownings increased exponentially in regions with warmer winters when air temperatures neared 0°C. The largest number of drownings occurred when winter air temperatures were between -5°C and 0°C, when ice is less stable, and also in regions where indigenous traditions and livelihood require extended time on ice. Rates of drowning were greatest late in the winter season when ice stability declines. Children and adults up to the age of 39 were at the highest risk of winter drownings. Beyond temperature, differences in cultures, regulations, and human behaviours can be important additional risk factors. Our findings indicate the potential for increased human mortality with warmer winter air temperatures. Incorporating drowning prevention plans would improve adaptation strategies to a changing climate.

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