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Demographic Change and Low Literacy

Volume 6: Chapter Two
Brad Edmondson

In Chapter Two, demographer Brad Edmondson draws on census data from 1990 and 2000 to describe the current and future characteristics of the low-literacy population in the United States. He considers how changes in this population might affect the provision of services for educating these adults. The author focuses on two major demographic trends and discusses the implications of these trends for literacy education.

The first of the significant trends is the aging of the “baby boom” generation, the cohort of 77 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964. Edmond points out that mental disability -- which he defines as “chronic difficulty with concentrating, remembering, or learning”-- is more common among individuals aged 65 and older. In the next twenty years, as baby boomers age and the elderly population grows significantly, there will likely be a rise in the number of elderly who suffer from a mental disability. This situation might therefore create a need for “forms of ABE that work closely with gerontologists and physicians to help formerly capable adults cope with cognitive losses associated with aging.”

The second trend is the growth in international immigration since 1980, especially in California, Texas, and Florida. Along with this immigration has come the rise in households living in linguistic isolation, as well as high levels of dropout from high school. As Edmondson notes, the dying off of less educated generations, combined with immigration, will likely shift the demand for ABE services, lowering it in Southeastern states, and increasing it in the Southwest and urban areas where immigrants tend to congregate. While meeting the needs of this growing immigrant population may prove challenging, educators must strive to do so in order to help keep the American dream alive and “bring a new generation into the mainstream.”

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