Renewing Economic Opportunity for All

UPDATE September 22, 2014: In recognition of Adult Education and Family Literacy Week, September 22-28, 2014, we revisit this blog post recognizing the role of adult education in the economic and social health of our nation. This week allows us to spotlight the many practitioners and volunteers who improve their communities through education and applaud the commitment of learners to improve themselves, their families and their communities through increased education, English proficiency, and workforce preparation.  Get involved and recognize Adult Education and Family Literacy Week in your community. Join the online celebration by including the #AEFLWeek and #AESuccess hashtags in your daily Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram posts.

“For the one million young men and women who are out of school and who are out of work, this program will permit us to take them off the streets, put them into work training programs, to prepare them for productive lives, not wasted lives […] It will help those small businessmen who live on the borderline of poverty. It will help the unemployed heads of families maintain their skills and learn new skills. ”

Photo of President Johnson signing the EOA in a ceremony in the White House rose garden surrounded by onlookers.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964.

These words were spoken by President Lyndon B. Johnson on August 20, 1964 as he signed the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA), a keystone of the “War on Poverty.” The EOA created several programs across a number of federal agencies that aimed to “eliminate the paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty in this Nation by opening to everyone the opportunity for education and training, the opportunity to work, and the opportunity to live in decency and dignity.” EOA was a legislative milestone that highlighted the need for investments in high quality education for youth as well as adults. In addition to programs like Head Start, Job Corps, and VISTA, EOA authorized federal grants for adult basic education, which marked the beginning of federal statutory involvement in adult literacy. This Law set the stage for other crucial adult education legislation to address the issue of illiteracy such as the Adult Education Act of 1966 and the National Literacy Act of 1991.

EOA provided grants to states for the funding of adult education programs. These federal investments have continued and increased since the Law was enacted. For instance, in 2013 the U.S. Department of Education awarded over $560 million in grants to states. These investments have created opportunities for millions of adults to improve their skills, get a high school credential, go to college or participate in a training program, and find, keep, or get a higher paying job. Just over the last decade, 22.5 million adults participated in adult education programs.

The infographic from the OECD report,

Infographic: Who are the Low Skilled in America? Backgrounds of low skilled adults by age, race/ethnicity, gender, and nativity.

We have accomplished a lot since 1964, but today there are still 36 million adults (ages 16-65) in our country – 24 million of whom are working – who have low skills that prevent them from accessing training or middle class jobs. One in six adults have low literacy skills, one in three adults have poor numeracy skills, and low skills are just as prevalent now as 20 years ago. One third of these 36 million adults are younger than 35. One third are immigrants. More than half are black or Hispanic.

Photo of President Obama signing the WIOA into law.

President Obama signed the new Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) into law. July 22, 2014

Nearly a month ago marked a historic milestone for the adult education system in our country. On Tuesday, July 22nd, President Obama signed the new Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) into law. WIOA will help ensure that individuals who have the greatest barriers to employment have clear pathways to unsubsidized employment in in-demand industries and occupations that lead to economic self-sufficiency. At the signing event, Vice President Biden’s Ready to Work: Job-Driven Training and American Opportunity report was released. This report features 50 executive actions the Administration and key federal agencies have committed to in order to create more opportunities for job seekers and workers.

In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama reminded us: “Opportunity is who we are. And the defining project of our generation is to restore that promise.” Business as usual is not going to get us there. We need a collaborative effort involving education, business, industry, labor, and community.

Johan E. Uvin is the Acting Assistant Secretary for the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE). Lul Tesfai and Carmen Drummond are members of OCTAE’s staff.