Updated May 12, 2016

Shocking Facts: 23 Statistics on Illiteracy in America

Reading is an invaluable skill that's important to just about every aspect of our daily lives, from communications to the way we work to the food we eat. The ability to read and understand text is something that children typically begin to pick up on beginning around age five or six, but for some, reading doesn't click right away. If kids struggle with reading in their younger years, it increases the odds that they'll do so as adults.

Despite being a global economic and political leader, illiteracy continues to be a pervasive problem in the U.S. For adults who struggle with reading, the impact is felt in a number of ways, but the most obvious one is in the workplace. While researchers have pinpointed some of the causes behind the illiteracy crisis, including poverty, learning disabilities and a lack of parental participation, finding a solution has proven difficult. To put the severity of the issue into perspective, CreditDonkey has assembled a list of 23 startling statistics on illiteracy in America.


We consulted a number of sources to generate the most accurate picture possible of just how widespread illiteracy is here at home. We used the data to break the numbers down into relevant categories, beginning with how widespread illiteracy is among adults.

1. How many people in the U.S. are illiterate?
Approximately 32 million adults in America are considered to be illiterate; about 14% of the entire adult population cannot read.

2. How does that compare to the rest of the world?
On a global scale, illiteracy affects 774 million adults aged 15 or older. Among developed nations, the U.S. ranks 16th for adult reading skills.

3. How many adults only read at the lowest proficiency level?
Between 40 and 44 million adults, or roughly 20 to 23% of adults in the U.S., are limited to reading at the basic or below basic proficiency levels.

4. Are men or women more likely to be illiterate?
Women are more likely to develop solid reading skills. Around 38% of men report reading at the lowest proficiency levels, compared to 33% for women.

5. How many adults read at or below a fifth grade level?
Reading material becomes more complex for students around the fifth grade, and some 30 million adults aren't able to comprehend texts that are appropriate for 10-year-olds.

6. How many adults aren't able to read above an eighth grade level?
An estimated 63 million adults read between a sixth and eighth grade level. Just 11% of men and 12% of women make the grade as proficient readers.

7. What age group has lowest literacy rate?
Surprisingly, it's actually older Americans who most frequently lack adequate reading skills. Approximately one-third of adults who struggle with illiteracy are aged 65 or older.

8. What city has the worst illiteracy problem?
The Golden State has a lot to offer if you like surfing the waves or spotting celebrities, but it falls short when it comes to reading. Bakersfield earned the title of the least literate city in the U.S. in 2013, with only about 20% of residents calling themselves college graduates.

9. What city boasts the strongest readers?
While adults struggle with literacy in California, it's a different story on the other side of the country. Washington, D.C., ranks as the most literacy-minded city in America, with 53% of adults holding a college degree.


While the difficulties that go along with being unable to read typically manifest themselves in adulthood, their roots can be traced back to the elementary and secondary school years. The next component we were interested in was how reading skills (or a lack thereof) during a child's early life translate to illiteracy rates later on.

10. What percentage of high school graduates can't read?
Making it to graduation day is a major milestone for teens, but many of them struggle to decipher the words on their diploma. Just under 20% of high school grads haven't developed basic reading proficiency by the time they don their cap and gown.

11. Does living in a two-parent home improve literacy rates?
Single parent families are increasingly common these days, but children's literacy skills may be suffering. Research shows that kids who grow up with both parents at home score roughly 45 points higher on literacy reading assessments.

12. Can reading to children make a difference?
Reading to kids early on can help to boost literacy rates over the long term. An estimated 77% of children who are read to are more likely to read or attempt to read on their own, versus 57% of kids who don't have regular story time at home.

13. How often do young people read?
A combined 56% of middle and high school students say they read 10 or more books per year. At the middle school level, 70% of kids do so, while just 49% of high school students make the same claim.

14. Are challenged readers more likely to drop out of school?
If solid reading skills aren't formed during a child's early years, the odds of dropping out down the road increase significantly. Kids who aren't successfully reading at grade level by the third grade are four times less likely to finish high school.

15. How does illiteracy correlate to teen pregnancy rates?
Poor reading skills may also increase the chances of becoming a teen mom. In one study, 21% of girls with below average reading skills had a child in their early teens, compared to 5% of girls who rated above average.


Illiteracy can be a major barrier to young adults who might be interested in going to college or finding a stable job. Without a goal to work towards or a means of earning money, engaging in criminal behavior may become a real possibility. We've included some statistics on illiteracy rates among juvenile and adult offenders to demonstrate how important a solid education is.

16. Are reading skills an indicator of criminal tendencies?
The issue of whether illiteracy can predict future behavior has been hotly debated. Studies suggest that two-thirds of students who struggle with reading by fourth grade will run into trouble with the law at some point.

17. What percentage of juvenile offenders are illiterate?
Illiteracy is widespread among juveniles who find themselves in trouble with the law. Approximately 85% of youth who come into contact with the juvenile court are considered to be functionally illiterate, meaning they read at a basic or below basic level.

18. What percentage of adult inmates struggle with reading?
Literacy rates aren't much improved among the adult prison population. About 70% of male and female inmates score at the lowest proficiency level for reading.

19. Does illiteracy influence recidivism rates?
Inmates who take advantage of education programs in prison may be less likely to commit a subsequent crime once they're released. In one study, the recidivism rate for offenders who participated in literacy programs was 27%, but it jumped to 60% among those who received no additional education while incarcerated.


Finally, we looked at statistics linking illiteracy to lower levels of financial achievement. While the impact is most immediately felt at the individual level, there is a trickle-down affect that touches the economy as a whole.

20. How many welfare recipients aren't proficient readers?
Research has also linked illiteracy to poverty as an adult. As many as 75% of welfare recipients struggle to read even the simplest texts.

21. How does illiteracy impact the economy?
In terms of lost productivity, it's estimated that the portion of the population that can't read costs the nation a staggering $225 billion each year.

22. How does it affect health care costs?
Being able to read is important to maintaining good health, particularly if you have a serious illness or condition that requires medication or ongoing treatment. When patients lack basic reading skills, it can impact the health care system to the tune of $100 billion annually.

23. What does illiteracy cost workers?
Poor reading proficiency often translates to a smaller paycheck, especially for women. Men with lower literacy skills are twice as likely to earn $650 or more per week than women at the same reading level. On the other hand, women with low literacy skills are twice as likely to earn only $300 or less per week than their comparable male counterparts.


Illiteracy often takes a backseat to more pressing issues but based on the statistics we've uncovered, it's clear that it's no less important. Closing the education gap is easier said than done but if reading rates could be improved, the research suggests that the end result would be a win-win for the country as a whole.

Sources and References

Rebecca Lake is a journalist at CreditDonkey, a credit card comparison and reviews website. Write to Rebecca Lake at rebecca@creditdonkey.com. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for our latest posts.

Note: This website is made possible through financial relationships with some of the products and services mentioned on this site. We may receive compensation if you shop through links in our content. You do not have to use our links, but you help support CreditDonkey if you do.

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