5 Facts about adult illiteracy
Religion & Liberty Online

5 Facts about adult illiteracy

Adult illiteracy is one of the most overlooked socio-economic problems in America. Illiteracy can increase unemployment and poverty while lowering family stability and community flourishing. Here are five facts should know about adult illiteracy in America:

1. Illiteracy is the inability to read or write. While complete illiteracy is relatively rare among native English speakers in the U.S., a significant percentage of Americans are functionally illiterate. A person is considered functionally illiterate when they cannot engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective functioning of his group and community and also for enabling him to continue to use reading, writing, and calculation for his own and the community’s development

2. In almost all of the 36 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a sizable proportion of adults (18.5 percent, on average) has poor reading skills. The OECD found that 50 percent of U.S. adults can’t read a book written at an eighth-grade level. About 11 million adults are completely illiterate in English. In three states—California, Florida, and New York—more than one in five people lack basic literacy skills.

3. Low literacy is associated with a variety of unfavorable labor market outcomes. Those with the lowest literacy scores are 16.5 times more likely to have received public financial aid in the past year, relative to those in the highest literacy group. They are also more likely to be in the lowest measured wage group, working full-time but earning less than $300 per week.

4. One study notes that twenty-five percent of adults who were out of the labor force were found to be at the two lowest levels on the literacy scale. Low skills costs the U.S. $225 billion or more each year in terms of workforce non-productivity, crime, and loss of tax revenue due to unemployment. Of adults with the lowest literacy levels, 43 percent live in poverty, and 70 percent of adult welfare recipients have low literacy levels.

5. Children of parents with low literacy skills have a 72 percent chance of being at the lowest reading levels themselves. These children are more likely to get poor grades, display behavioral problems, have high absentee rates, repeat school years, or drop out. However, low-literate parents who improve their own skills and are qualified to hold down a job with family-sustaining wages are more likely to have a positive impact on their children’s education.


Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).