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Appalling: 130 million Americans read below a sixth-grade level—54 percent

Roughly half of U.S. adults, aged 16 to 74 years old — 54% or 130 million people — lack literacy proficiency

—U.S. Department of Education

… how could this happen in a wealthy country?

A Gallup study using data from the U.S. Department of Education reveals what many have been saying for years: We are in a country with low-literacy skills.

Indeed, more than half of Americans are considered to be reading at an elementary school level, which means that most of them are essentially illiterate. Many think that illiterate means simply being unable to read or write, but the situation is more complicated than that.

Low literacy skills mean that those people generally are in the lower economic classes and income levels in the country. However, it goes beyond that.

Gallup study

What Gallup did in this study was assess the numbers compiled by the U.S. Department of Education, which has studied the literacy problem,

About 130 million adults in the U.S. have low literacy skills according to a Gallup analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education. This means more than half of Americans between the ages of 16 and 74 (54%) read below the equivalent of a sixth-grade level.

Literacy is broadly defined as the ability to read and write, but it more accurately encompasses the comprehension, evaluation and utilization of information, which is why people describe many different types of literacy — such as health, financial, legal, etc. Low literacy skills can profoundly affect the day-to-day success of adults in the real world, and these impacts extend to their families, too.

Dr. Iris Feinberg, associate director of the Adult Literacy Research Center at Georgia State University, said anyone can have low literacy skills.

“It's not just people who are poor. It's not just people who are racial minorities. It's not just people who speak funny because they're from the South. It literally can be anybody,” she said.

Emily Schmidt, “130 million American adults have low literacy

skills,” APM Research Lab, March 16, 2022

What is appalling is that despite the monetary resources expended on education, the literacy level is so low.

Approximately 20 percent have low literacy

The U.S. ranked 16th in a study of large nations conducted by the National Central for Education Statistics that used data from 2012 to 2017. This found that 20 percent of adults have level 1 literacy, the lowest level,

Nationally, over 1 in 5 adults have a literacy proficiency at or below Level 1. Adults in this range have difficulty using or understanding print materials. Those on the higher end of this category can perform simple tasks based on the information they read, but adults below Level 1 may only understand very basic vocabulary or be functionally illiterate.

Emily Schmidt, APM Research Lab, March 16, 2022

The Gallup study went into depth as to how this affects income of Americans,

At the individual level, it is well-established that literacy is linked to a variety of positive outcomes, such as higher education, income, health and civil engagement. Likewise, macroeconomic research has long-shown that higher levels of human capital — measured by educational attainment, cognitive ability and literacy — are associated with higher economic growth at the national level.

Yet, according to a recent study from the Department of Education, roughly half of U.S. adults, aged 16 to 74 years old — 54% or 130 million people — lack literacy proficiency.


Taking this figure into account, in conjunction with the macroeconomic evidence that human capital can drive economic growth, it follows that enormous economic gains would come from eradicating illiteracy in the U.S.

By estimating the average income gains an individual could expect when moving from below-proficiency in literacy to the minimum proficiency, and then scaling those gains to the metropolitan, county, state and national levels, this study provides a simplified but plausible estimate of the potential impact of literacy gains in the U.S., from the individual to the national level …

Income is strongly related to literacy. The average annual income of adults who reach the minimum level for proficiency in literacy (Level 3) is nearly $63,000, significantly higher than the average of almost $48,000 earned by adults who score just below proficiency (Level 2) and much higher than those at low Levels of literacy (Levels 0 and 1), who earn just over $34,000 on average.

Jonathan Rothwell, Ph.D., “Assessing the economic gains of eradicating illiteracy nationally and regionally in the United States,” September 8, 2020

What should be considered strong literacy?

I tried to copy some of the data from APM Research Lab, but could not. It breaks down the literacy problems by states.

It ranges from a low of 12 percent in Minnesota to highs of 28 to 29 percent in Texas, Alabama, California, New Mexico, and Louisiana.

While the number of 54 percent is appalling, 46 percent of Americans have relatively high literacy proficiency,

In contrast, 46% of adults in the U.S. have a literacy proficiency at or above Level 3. Adults at Levels 3, 4 and 5 have varying degrees of proficiency in understanding, interpreting and synthesizing information from multiple, complex texts to infer meaning and draw conclusions.

What’s more, several of the counties with the nation’s very lowest adult literacy performance are located in these southern states. For example, the 10 counties with the highest percentage of their populations at or below Level 1 literacy are in Texas, primarily along the U.S.-Mexican border.

By using small area estimation modeling with data from the American Community Survey, the PIAAC provides indirect literacy estimations at the county level for all 50 states. Some of these high county-level percentages stem from high populations of immigrants, whose first language is not English. The PIAAC only assesses English literacy, though its background questionnaire is given in English and Spanish.

Emily Schmidt, APM Research Lab, March 16, 2022

An analysis of the damage this does to the country was done by the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, which concluded that adult literacy costs the U.S. $2.2 trillion dollars each year.

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