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Opinion

Now More Than Ever, the City Must Invest in Adult Literacy


dromm 2

Council Member Dromm, one of the authors (photo: Make The Road NY)


Three million immigrant New Yorkers currently call our city home, adding to its vibrancy and vitality. Since Donald Trump’s election, immigrant communities have been fearful: hate crimes have gone up, immigrant workers face more exploitation, and families are scared of separation and deportation. For those of us working as community advocates and elected officials, we are now driven more than ever to find the policy solutions that will help our immigrant communities thrive and remain resilient, rather than live in fear.

Mayor de Blasio and City Council leaders have taken policy positions that do just that: committing to non-cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), pioneering an IDNYC program, maintaining strong worker protections, and increasing funding for universal pre-kindergarten (UPK) and the Community Schools initiative. Now, to more effectively protect and support our communities, we also need to deepen our investment in adult education and baseline in into the city budget.

Just a year ago the Mayor and Council invested $12 million for adult literacy, an increase that advocates called historic at the time. City leaders invested because the need is great, and for the thousands who study every year, the English classes offered by adult literacy providers give immigrants a pathway to economic mobility, social integration, parental support of children’s academic success, improved health outcomes, and greater civic engagement.

As immigrant communities live in fear and anxiety over federal immigration policy, it is essential that they are able to read and understand English—even as our city government is defending their rights and providing some protective services. Without English proficiency, many immigrants are left isolated and at risk of being taken advantage of by unscrupulous “notarios” who promise immigration relief for a fee, but never deliver. They are even more fearful than ever of accessing health and social services, challenged when applying for or improving work, and less able to support their children’s learning, or to report or stand up against employer, landlord, or police abuses.

Under the Trump administration, New York City’s largest source of federal adult literacy dollars (WIOA) is at risk of significant cuts. Even if the funding is maintained at a reduced level, current policy will likely make it more difficult to serve undocumented and low-level learners over time. For all of these reasons, this is the moment for the Mayor and Council to build on the momentum from last year’s investment and use their leadership to make New York City a model of adult literacy service provision. It is not too late, despite the fact that the Mayor’s most recent Executive Budget did not renew last year’s $12 million investment in adult literacy. A budget deal must be reached by July 1. The time is now.

Without the $12 million again this year, spots will be lost in literacy classes for over 5,500 adult students throughout the city, and an opportunity to deeply support immigrant New Yorkers will be lost. Last fiscal year's investment was critical to providers and students, and should be transformed into a baselined, multi-year investment in the field of adult education, allowing the city to update reimbursement rates for community based providers offering cost effective and critical services. In order to make our city a true 'sanctuary' city, we need to make it a city of opportunity for immigrants by ensuring that they have access to the literacy classes they need to thrive now.

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Daniel Dromm is a member of the New York City Council. Theo Oshiro is the Deputy Director of Make the Road New York. On Twitter: @Dromm25 & @TheoOshiro.

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