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The Literacy Crisis in America

By November 19, 2016September 7th, 2019Literature

Being able to read and write is an essential skill for all adults one that we take for granted (look at us reading this without giving it a second thought) one that you would imagine would be a priority for a 1st world country such as the United States and yet the Literacy crisis in America is reaching epidemic proportions.

The shocking thing is we are not talking about children here but full grown adults who are unable to read anything but the most basic sentences and cannot spell even simple words, these are not people with diagnosed dyslexia or other medical reasons for their poor literacy skills these are simply people who have fallen through the ever widening cracks in America’s education system and who leave formal education without the essential literacy skills needed to get on in life

According to the Literacy Foundation the consequences of having little to no literacy skills in adult life are wide ranging with the main issues as follows:

For Individuals

  • Limited ability to obtain and understand essential information;
  • Unemployment: The unemployment rate is 2–4 times higher among those with little schooling than among those with Bachelor’s degrees;
  • Lower income;
  • Lower-quality jobs;
  • Reduced access to lifelong learning and professional development;
  • Precarious financial position;
  • Little value is given to education and reading within the family, and this often leads to intergenerational transmission of illiteracy;
  • Low self-esteem, which can lead to isolation;
  • Impact on health: Illiterate individuals have more workplace accidents, take longer to recover and more often misuse medication through ignorance of health care resources and because they have trouble reading and understanding the relevant information (warnings, dosage, contraindications, etc.).

For Society

  • Since literacy is an essential tool for individuals and states to be competitive in the new global knowledge economy, many positions remain vacant for lack of personnel adequately trained to hold them;
  • The higher the proportion of adults with low literacy proficiency is, the slower the overall long-term GDP growth rate is;
  • The difficulty understanding societal issues lowers the level of community involvement and civic participation.


The Literacy Foundation also added  that “Without the basic tools necessary for achieving their goals, individuals without an adequate level of literacy cannot be involved fully and on a completely equal basis in social and political discourse.”

With this in mind you would imagine that literacy would be high on the political agenda but in the run up to the recent elections education was notable in its absence when listening to either candidate’s promises for an America that would once again be great under their leadership.

Taking Washington DC as an example and looking at data from the 2014 US Census Bureau 21% of the city’s adult population did not have a high school diploma, that’s 61,000 or 2 out of every 10 people of working age that live in the city who have never graduated. But it’s not just in Washington DC that literacy problems are rising, across the nation it is claimed that approximately 32 million adults cannot read, according to the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy; even more shocking is the fact that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that 50 percent of U.S. adults are unable to read a book written at an eighth-grade (12-13 years) level.

Unfortunately statistics do not offer much hope for the future of America’s literacy levels either with figures suggesting that the children of parents with low literacy skills are more likely to live in poverty as adults and are five times more likely to drop out of school than those who are brought up in a house of literate parents. This lack of formal education inevitably results in lower earning power and serious threats to an individual’s long-term well-being with figures suggesting that those D.C. residents without a high school diploma are seven times more likely to live in poverty than those who remain in school.

America isn’t resting on its laurels completely though, several innovative programs are aiming to break this cycle by offering adults the opportunity to catch up on their education and work toward high school diplomas through the GED exam or completion of the National External Diploma Program. It seems as though the nation is at a pivotal point in its national literacy levels, it can either continue ignoring the problem and hope it will go away or it can aid charities such as the Academy of Hope who are working with illiterate and barely literate adults to teach them not only how to read and write but how to fall in love with reading and writing too.

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