Illiteracy: The Downfall of American Society

Jun 13, 2011

Widespread illiteracy not only leads to lower education and employment rates, it is also linked to increased crime and incarceration and a high social and economic cost. Read on to learn more about the terrible effects of illiteracy on society and what you can do to help.

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What is Illiteracy?

Most people think of literacy as a simple question of being able to read. But while a young child who can work her way through a basic picture book is considered to have age-appropriate literacy levels, an adult who can only read at the most fundamental level is still functionally illiterate.

The world requires that adults not only be able to read and understand basic texts, but also be able to function in the workplace, pay bills, understand legal and financial documents and navigate technology - not to mention the advanced reading comprehension skills required to pursue postsecondary education and the opportunities that come with it.

As a result, when we talk about the effects of illiteracy on society, we're talking primarily about what happens when you have a large number of adults whose literacy skills are too low to perform normal, day-to-day tasks. However, it is worth keeping in mind that childhood illiteracy is, of course, directly correlated to adult illiteracy.

Illiteracy Around the World

In 2003, the United Nations launched the United Nations Literacy Decade (UNLD) with the slogan, 'Literacy is freedom.' Operating under the premise that 'literacy is a human right,' the initiative aims to improve literacy efforts, increase global literacy levels and reduce poverty.

According to the UNLD:

  • Worldwide, one in five adults cannot read or write
  • In low-income countries, only about 61% of adults are literate
  • In high-income countries, almost 99% of adults are literate

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Illiteracy in the U.S.

Compared to the rest of the world, the U.S. is doing well. According to the latest International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), between 19% and 23% of American adults performed at the top levels for each of the three literacy scales: document literacy, prose literacy and quantitative (number) literacy. Sweden is the only country that scored higher.

Yet many Americans are being left behind. The same survey found that between 21% and 24% of U.S. adults performed at the lowest level for all three scales, a figure echoed by the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS). So what effect does this have on society in the United States?

Poverty & Employment

On average, adults at the lowest levels of literacy:

  • Earn about $230-$245 per week
  • Work only 18-19 weeks each year
  • Are more than three times as likely to receive food stamps (17%-19% as compared to 4% of those who read at the highest levels)
  • Are almost ten times more likely to be living below the poverty line (41%-44% as compared to 4%-8%)


  • Between 31% and 40% of prisoners read at the lowest literacy level, which is at least ten percentage points worse than the national average
  • Only four percent to seven percent of the prison population reads at the highest two literacy levels, compared to 18% to 21% of the rest of the population

As the above statistics show, illiteracy can be closely correlated with low earnings and high incarceration rates. Individuals who cannot read struggle to function in society, which can cripple their lives and increase the burden on state prisons and economic support systems.

How You Can Help

Although illiteracy seems like an overwhelming problem, there are many things that individuals can do to help. You can help prevent illiteracy by becoming a tutor at a nearby school or going to a poor neighborhood and offering literacy support at a local school or community center. You can also help adults overcome literacy challenges by volunteering at an adult basic education center where you can teach adults to read and help them with basic life skills.

Individuals who want to spend more time working on this issue may consider getting involved with a national organization like AmeriCorps. Students who would like to devote themselves to fighting illiteracy may be interested in degrees in education, public administration or social work.

You can view statistics from the UNLD, IALS and NALS via UNESCO (, the National Center for Education Statistics ( and the U.S. Census Bureau (

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