Rebuilding after Katrina hampered by an illiterate population

Three years after Katrina, residents of New Orleans are still buried in a blizzard of government paperwork. But for thousands of storm victims seeking federal aid, the challenge is made more difficult by a little-known obstacle: More than 40 percent of the city’s adults lack the literacy skills to comprehend basic government forms. And recovery programs have done little to ease the burden.

“I didn’t get a lot of school when I was a child. I guess they didn’t have enough to go around,” said Marsha Williams, who is learning to read in a YMCA adult-education course.

Rachel B. Nicolosi, program director for the Literacy Alliance of Greater New Orleans, estimates that as many as 100,000 people from New Orleans may have had assistance delayed, or they never applied for help at all, because they could not read the documents.

It’s a paramount issue. The rules are almost indecipherable for everyone,” said Davida Finger, a staff attorney for Loyola University’s New Orleans College of Law. Katrina destroyed 27 adult literacy programs when it came ashore in 2005. Only 13 programs survived, so Nicolosi and others have asked for government rebuilding agencies to write aid forms in a “plain language” format that is already used for some federal health and safety documents.

The government says “NO”.

The cornerstone of neighborhood rebuilding efforts is the $10.3 billion Road Home program, which asks participants to review dozens of documents and sign 18 final legal papers before aid is approved.

Just what serious reformation and rebuilding really needs. Right?

When I worked in the shipyards of Louisiana, the worst result of years of segregation and discrimination I confronted – was how racist school systems kept poor people, especially poor Black people, under their thumb with ignorance and illiteracy.

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