As Mayor de Blasio, his administration and the City Council grapple with the tough decisions that must be made in a world of finite resources, it appears that adult literacy programming—a lifeline to thousands of New Yorkers with limited English skills and lacking workforce credentials as basic as a high school diploma—is once again poised to be slashed. That would be a mistake, and, fortunately, it’s not too late for city leaders to correct it. The final city budget agreement isn’t due for another month, and it would be wise for the mayor and City Council consider the following.
Today New York is home to 1.7 million individuals over the age of 18 who lack English proficiency and/ or a high school diploma. Even assuming that all 5.5 million New Yorkers between the ages of 18 and 64 are eligible to work—and they aren’t, given enrollment in college, family care responsibilities, disabilities and other barriers—that would mean nearly one-third of the city’s workforce does not have the skills to compete in the local economy, much less the global one. If the mayor is to truly make strides toward his laudable goal of lifting 800,000 people out of poverty, it makes sense that he start by helping these New Yorkers gain the skills they need to obtain jobs that will allow them to support themselves and their families.
As part of the city’s newly minted workforce development plan known as Career Pathways, the administration has vowed to better knit the patchwork system of adult literacy classes into the broader workforce development system, with the goal of turning New Yorkers into viable candidates for openings in the job market. Yet surprisingly, not only does the mayor’s Executive Budget not include a substantial reinvestment in these foundational education programs—a prerequisite to the more commonly emphasized training courses and certifications—but it actually proposes to eliminates classes for thousands of immigrant New Yorkers currently enrolled in the city’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Designed to provide literacy and legal supports to help New Yorkers qualify for federal administrative relief, over 10,000 individuals of all backgrounds have rushed to DACA over the last two years. In redesigning the program this year, the mayor’s budget proposes eliminating classes for over 4,100 students currently enrolled in the program, meaning that thousands of New Yorkers desperate to learn English, as they are so often implored to do, will have the rug yanked from under them.
If we want to live in a city where every adult who wants to learn English can, where every individual who knows they need to earn a high school diploma has a place they can start, where parents can communicate with their children’s teachers and where individuals can meaningfully engage with medical professionals and the police without a language barrier, investing in adult literacy programs should not be an afterthought, but a priority. Eliminating these educational opportunities should be unthinkable. Recent New York Times coverage of the exploitation of nail salon workers with limited English skills is just the latest example of why literacy classes are essential. There’s still time to get it right, and for the sake of the future of our city, which continues to be built by immigrants, the mayor and City Council must provide an enduring solution.