This article first appeared in the Hobbs News-Sun.
When we talk about the need to improve literacy levels in our region, we are often discussing the need to improve children’s literacy. There are calls to read to your kids and make sure they have access to books. But what if, as an adult, you couldn’t read the books yourself? The JF Maddox Foundation recently became a member of the Literacy Coalition of the Permian Basin (LCPB), an organization founded in 2021 to address the literacy challenges in the Permian Basin including a profound gap in adult literacy skills.
According to the LCPB, one in three adults in the Permian Basin region reads below a third-grade reading level. These adults struggle with reading their doctors’ prescriptions and staying safe on highways due to an inability to read and comprehend complex traffic signs. They often struggle to communicate with their child’s teachers, and all of this has an impact on our overall economy. Approximately 30 percent of the new jobs in the Permian Basin over the next 30 years will require higher literacy skills. According to The Perryman Group, an economic insights firm hired by the LCPB to provide economic impact data for this region, the Permian Basin needs more than 50,000 more workers with increased literacy skills by 2050 to meet its projected workforce needs.
Low literacy is related to a variety of social factors as well, but it is most strongly related to low educational attainment. Adults with low educational attainment are more concentrated in specific communities across the region. Many remote communities do not have easy access to adult education providers. Sufficient access to adult education opportunities across the Permian Basin is necessary if we want to see change. Expanding virtual and hybrid learning options is one potential approach to expanding adult education opportunities.
We understand there are a variety of challenges that are particular to this region that impact successful adult education programs, like the fluctuations in the local economy that make starting and completing a program challenging. With a high cost of living due to the booming oil and gas industry, adult learners don’t have time to attend adult education classes because they are working long extensive schedules or multiple jobs to make ends meet in their households. These tough economic conditions are compounded when talking about families who also struggle to find affordable childcare for their jobs and for continuing educational opportunities. In-person and virtual options are inaccessible due to limited internet options in rural areas which prevent learners from accessing virtual adult education options. Oftentimes, adult learners are accessing virtual programs on cell phones lacking the necessary bandwidth or capabilities to ensure the class is completed successfully.
While these statistics seem daunting, this region has proven itself time and again with the ability to join together and solve tough challenges. There is a huge amount of growth potential for this region to improve adult literacy. Southeast New Mexico has room to expand adult education participation, with less than 3 percent of the estimated low-literate adults being served. By relying on our invested community partners, such as the JF Maddox Foundation and the LCPB, together we can have a transformative impact on the families and workers who are part of our community.
Mayra Loves is Vice President – Grants at the JF Maddox Foundation, a private family foundation in Lea County, New Mexico. Alongside its partners, the foundation invests in education, social services, and community development for a greater quality of life for Lea County residents.