Is America’s Adult Literacy Problem Serious?


Around the world, an estimated 781 million children and adults are either illiterate or functionally literate and 43 million of those adults are Americans. While the former means that they cannot read even a single word, the latter means that they have either a basic or below-average reading level.


Despite being the largest economy in the world, the U.S. continues to struggle with a staggering literacy problem where 21% of adults in the U.S.  are either completely illiterate or functionally illiterate.
It suggests that the U.S. is significantly behind many countries with smaller economies, including Japan, the UK, Canada, all of the Scandinavian countries, and South Korea.


adult literacyAdverse Effects of Mass Illiteracy


This problem is costing our country dearly. An estimated $232 billion in annual healthcare costs are due to the public’s general inability to understand fundamental health information. Meanwhile, with regards to the American workforce, illiteracy costs the U.S. an annual $225 billion in non-productivity, workplace crime, as well as loss tax revenue from unemployment due to illiteracy. This also explains why 43% of American adults with the lowest literacy levels are also poor. A serious and devastating cycle that is very difficult to move out of.


Why Is This Happening?


America’s educational system is faulty to the say the least, and teachers often bear the brunt of this problematic situation. The mean starting salary for teachers in America is typically below $40,000. This is barely enough to cover the most basic needs of teachers, who are also often forced to pay for their own teaching supplies.


As a consequence, the nation’s teachers have previously gone on strike in states like Oklahoma and Illinois in an effort to pressure the Department of Education to set reasonable minimum wage requirements – not just for their states, but for public school teachers nationwide.


With 18% of public school teachers having to work multiple jobs to survive, the lack of government funding and policy support in education has greatly contributed to teacher absenteeism and poor performance in students. The result of which is reflected in the adult literacy statistics presented above. To reduce the number of illiterate adults the root problem needs to be fixed.

adult literacyGetting Adults Back into Education


The good news is that there are viable ways for adults to get back into formal education and improve their literacy. ThoughtCo advises illiterate adults to get in touch with their local literacy council to find adult education classes in or near their area. Local libraries will also often provide details of literacy classes. And if the county itself for some reason doesn’t offer adult education courses, the state education department should be able to help, as there is a dedicated department for every state.


For adults concerned with the financial requirements of attending adult education classes, the state’s education-focused funding program may be able to help as well. With rules typically administered state-to-state, Marcus defines the 529 plan as a specialized investment account that can be used for qualified education expenses like tuition, books, or school supplies. The primary benefit of using a 529 plan is that the money can grow tax-free, and be withdrawn for the above-mentioned expenses without incurring other taxes or payments. Furthermore, CNBC confirms that the 529 plan covers everything from online courses (which many literacy programs are today) and special equipment to board and lodging as well as additional school fees.


While it’s not ideal for everybody, this does show how there are options for those who need financial help getting back into education. There’s no doubt that America’s adult literacy problem is very serious. The government needs to be more responsible in terms of funding and supporting education through policy reforms. While there are adults who can improve their literacy through continued education, much more needs to be done to provide support for everyone.

Written by: Hannah Leah