National Data | Why Immigrants In Los Angeles (AND THEIR U.S.-BORN CHILDREN) Can't Read
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If you were told that more than half of the adult inhabitants of the 17th largest economy in the world couldn't read, you would probably think it was a less developed country like Pakistan or Nigeria.

Well, think again. The place is in the good old US of A.: Los Angeles.

A new study by the United Way of Los Angeles finds that 53 percent of the city's adult population—3.8 million people—are functionally illiterate. [United Way, Literacy@Work: The L.A. Workforce Literacy Project, September 2004.]

The percentage soars to 84 percent in heavily Hispanic south L.A., dropping to 44 percent in the greater San Fernando Valley. [Table 1.]

When we last checked, only 41 percent of Los Angeles' population was foreign-born. (See U.S. Census Bureau, The Foreign Born Population: 2000, December 2003). 

Thus the illiteracy problem in that city is not limited to immigrants. Many of their U.S.-born children must also be functionally illiterate.

But the ultimate cause of LA illiteracy is mass immigration. Directly, it constantly resupplies the illiterate pool. Indirectly, it overwhelms the assimilative mechanism. The quality of English instruction for native non-Hispanic Angelenos must also suffer when resources are diverted to classes full of immigrants (Not that anyone seems to care).

Here are figures for 2000:

  • Limited English Fluency: L.A. County: 31 percent; U.S.: 8 percent


  • Adults w/o HS diploma: L.A. County 30 percent; U.S.: 20 percent


  • High School Dropout Rate: L.A. County: 38 percent; U.S.: 32 percent


  • Recent immigrants:  L.A. County: 13 percent; U.S. 5 percent.

There are numerous opportunities for adult non-English speakers to acquire the requisite skills—many funded by non-profits like United Way.

But—confirming a point often made by VDARE.COM's Joe Guzzardi, who teaches English as a Second Language—only about 15 percent of L.A. County's low-literacy adult population is enrolled in literacy programs. Dropout rates for these remedial programs approach 50 percent after the first three weeks.

Very few working-age adults in Los Angeles are completely illiterate—nearly all can write their name or read a simple paragraph. But most lack the skills required for job related tasks. They are classified as "low-literate," meaning they are unable to read a bus schedule, write a note explaining a billing error, follow instructions on a medicine bottle, or complete a job application.

The distortion of the L.A. economy is sobering. Employers complain that they can't find workers for high-skilled jobs, but the low wage, low-skill economy is booming. The county employment forecast shows that 282,000 new jobs in the $16,000 to $26,000 pay range will be created by 2008. These jobs include cashiers, dishwashers, security guards, and other occupations requiring only brief on-the-job-training and limited language skills.

Wages for all of these unskilled positions have declined in L.A. County for the past 15 years—exactly what you would expect in a workforce inundated by functionally illiterate immigrants.

[Number fans click here for tables.]

Edwin S. Rubenstein (email him) is President of ESR Research Economic Consultants in Indianapolis.

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