Issues that Matter: Illiteracy Costs Us All

December 12, 2010

On a typical day, many of us read the morning newspaper while waking up with coffee. Maybe we leave a short note for our spouse or kids before we leave the house. Perhaps we sign our child’s school paper. Maybe we read and write e-mails and texts from our smart phone. While driving to work, we read the road signs without even thinking about it.

When we reach work, many of us begin reading documents almost immediately, whether its instructions, reports or correspondence. If we go out to lunch, we peruse the menu before selecting. On the way home from work, we may stop at the grocery store, list in hand.

I take those routine tasks for granted, as I’m sure you do as well. Now imagine not being able to read or write. No newspaper. No smart phone. No notes or signing school papers. No work documents. Likely no driving. Ordering the same thing at lunch. No grocery list. The limitations are enormous.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 774 million adults are illiterate in their native language. The number in the US is 30 million; two thirds of those are women.

This is not a post about immigration. Undoubtedly, a certain percentage of the illiteracy rate is due to illegal immigration. This is not a post about human trafficking, although a large percentage of trafficking victims are also illiterate. (See my last post on human trafficking.)

This is a post about Americans who cannot read and write.

ProLiteracy defines literacy as “the ability to read, write, compute, and use technology at a level that enables an individual to reach his or her full potential as a parent, employee, and communty member.”

UNESCO defines literacy as the “ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.”

So why is the ability to read and write so important, other than the convenience and necessity of every day life? Many, if not most, socio-economic issues are connected to low literacy:

–More than half of our inmates can barely read or write. According to First Book, an American high school student drops out every 26 seconds. If we could increase the male graduation rate by just 5 percent, we could save up to $49 billion in costs related to crime.

–Illiteracy adds about $200 billion to the cost of health care annually. If you can’t read about disease prevention or even read how much medicine to take, it’s much more difficult to stay healthy. This increases hospital visits and stays as well as use of emergency services.

–Illiteracy contributes to problems of abuse. If you can’t read about your rights, how can you advocate for yourself? Literacy can play a major role in reducing gender inequity.

–Over $225 billion is spent on lost productivity and crime, directly related to literacy. First Book sites how the U.S. Department of Education “expects the literacy gap in America will produce a shortage of 12 million qualified workers in the next decade.”

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) sponsors the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) every decade or so. In the last assessment, undertaken in 2003, 1.1 million people couldn’t even take the test because they are NON-literate.

Monetary costs are, of course, much easier to quantify, but we don’t want to forget about the human cost. Illiteracy limits the capacity of adults and children in so many ways and makes them dependent on the government, their communities and even the kindness of strangers.

How can you get involved?

Find the literacy council nearest you.

Become a tutor. The councils will train you, and give you teaching materials.

Volunteer your time in other ways. Most have volunteer boards and largely volunteer staffs, and would welcome your expertise.

Attend a local fundraiser. Most are community events.

Donate money. Resources are always tight.

In September, the U.S. House of Representatives formed the Adult Literacy Caucus. Urge your member of Congress to join/support this Caucus.

Literacy Resources


First Book 

American Library Association

National Center for Family Literacy

Almanac of Policy Issues  –

America’s Literacy DirectoryNational Center for Education Statistics (NCES) National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) 


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