Brought to you by East Alabama Regional Planning Commission
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
When it comes to the economic development of this area, where should our priorities be? For me, it is a simple matter of common sense. According to a report by the National Assessment of Adult Literacy 15% of Calhoun County residents are illiterate. By my estimates, this means that approximately 12,954 people over the age of 16 fail to possess adequate reading and writing skills. In contrast, using the Center for American Progress’ estimate, 2.5% of our county’s residents are undocumented workers. This is around 2,550 people – which I am sure has reduced somewhat due to the current Alabama immigration law.
Again, the main question is where should we focus our efforts. Do almost 13,000 illiterates hurt our local economy more than the 2,500 illegal workers? Both groups surely help our economy by buying stuff in our stores and spend money with our medical doctors. Of course, it is widely believed that many undocumented workers send money back home to their country of origin. However, when you consider the amount of money our residents spend on online purchases involving companies that are either out of this area or even out of the country, the rest of us do far more damage as we too affect the drain of capital away from the local economy.
So the question is who hurts our economy the most? The presumption is that illegal workers “steal” jobs from law-abiding Alabamians. Indeed, if that is literally true, then they damage the economy. However, low paid illiterates may be causing more substantial harm. Even if you assume that a portion of the illegal workers are also part of the 13,000 illiterates, the failure to be able to read and write still may be the larger of the two problems. The focus should be on the fact that by being productive all workers have the potential of creating goods and services, which draws money into this area. Illiterates, should they be employed, logically attract more revenue into this county than literates.
If we had a choice regarding which of the two problems should be eliminated first, I think that it is more logical to focus on the illiteracy problem. If all the illegals cannot read and were successfully expelled due to the strict law, then we would still have 12,500 who cannot read and write. Supposedly the expulsion would decrease our unemployment rate and boost our economy. However, this would not have the impact that one might expect. As illiterates who do work only find employment at the lowest end of the pay scale, on average the amount of money that they contribute is only a small fraction of that spent by the average literate worker. Forty-three percent of the people with the lowest literacy skills live in poverty; 17 percent receive food stamps, and 70 percent have no job or a part-time job. (National Institute for Literacy)
Surely focusing on reducing illiteracy by only a few percentage points would greatly surpass the value of bringing in new employers who would create hundreds of new jobs. Thus improvements in literacy would have much more impact on the wealth of Calhoun County residents than many other economic development incentives to include expelling those unwanted foreigners. Frankly, we would do much better by providing adequate education to the illegals rather than expelling them.
Even though the problem of undocumented workers is a problem that policy makers need to fix, they need to use some good old fashion Southern common sense. Yes, industrial recruitment is vital for the prosperity of this area. However, our reputation for poor education results – to include rampant illiteracy – does little to make our beautiful county attractive to would-be employers. Thus while resolving the illegal immigration should be addressed, we have much more pressing issues. Education must be a top priority. Reducing illiteracy must be equally addressed. The question is what should be our true priorities.
Keywords: illiteracy, illegal immigration, alabama, anniston, al, Calhoun County, economy
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