Grim Illiteracy Statistics Indicate Americans Have a Reading Problem

Contrary to what some may think, literacy goes beyond the simple ability to read and write. The 1998 U.S. Workforce Investment Act includes computational abilities necessary for societal and job functionality along with English reading, writing and speaking proficiency in its definition of literacy. Though some statistics report a high rate of literacy in the U.S., others paint a less rosy picture.

By Sarah Wright

Different Measures, Different Results

According to the CIA's World Factbook section on the United States, 99% of the population of our nation is literate ( This factsheet defines literacy as the ability of men and women aged 15 and older to both read and write. On a global scale, this is a pretty high rate, with some countries, like Uganda, reporting literacy rates around 66%. However, there are different statistics that get more specific, and these statistics paint a less rosy picture than the CIA's literacy factsheet.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a division of the U.S. Department of Education, surveyed more than 18,500 adults over age 16 for English literacy skills in 2003. This survey, called the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), measured literacy skills in categories called 'prose,' 'document' and 'quantitative' literacy. The NAAL results were presented by state, and some states fared better than others. For example, 23% of respondents in California were lacking in basic prose literacy skills, while states like Minnesota and North Dakota had comparatively high basic prose literacy, with only six percent lacking in basic skills.

Literacy Beyond Reading and Writing

While basic literacy remains a somewhat regional problem, other types of illiteracy are compounded by a lack of basic reading and writing skills. Health literacy, which refers to a patient's ability to understand instructions given by healthcare professionals, is an issue in the U.S. as well. According to a 1997 study of Medicare patients conducted by the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL), more than half of these patients couldn't properly understand instructions about taking medicines on an empty stomach.

Illiteracy and Dropouts

One statistic that can arguably be the most representative issue of the U.S. education gap problem is the high school dropout rate. Though lower than in previous years, NCES reported that in 2009, the U.S. had a total dropout rate of 8.1%. Dropout rates were lowest among white and Asian/Pacific Islander citizens, at 5.2% and 3.4%, respectively. The highest dropout rate in 2009 was among Hispanic students, with 17.6% dropping out. The next highest rate was among American Indian students at 13.2%. Black students had a dropout rate of 9.3%.

Though the total dropout rate in 2009 was much lower than the 14.1% reported in 1980, the rate of under-educated adults attempting to join the workforce presents a significant educational barrier to economic security. Considering the fact that the U.S. economy is already struggling, the fact that there will be a shortage of seven million properly educated workers by 2012 will do nothing to help with prosperity or recovery. This figure, which was reported in a study from Columbia University, accompanies other troubling numbers, like a $192 billion total loss in potential wages from workers without a high school diploma. These numbers show that, in spite of the CIA's 99% literacy statistic, there are educational inadequacy problems in the U.S. that must be addressed.

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