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14 Percent of U.S. Adults Can't Read

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About 14 percent of U.S. adults won't be reading this article. Well, okay, most people won't read it, given all the words that are published these days to help us understand and navigate the increasingly complex world.

But about 1 in 7 can't read it. They're illiterate.

Statistics released by the U.S. Education Department this week show that some 32 million U.S. adults lack basic prose literacy skill. That means they can't read a newspaper or the instruction on a bottle of pills.

The figures are for 2003, the latest year available. State and county results are available here.

"The crisis of adult literacy is getting worse, and investment in education and support programs is critical," said David C. Harvey, president and CEO of ProLiteracy, in response to the finding.

This is about jobs and the economy, Harvey said.

"More than 1 million people lost their jobs in 2008 and the new unemployment figures are the highest in 16 years," Harvey said. "A large number of the unemployed are low-skilled individuals who struggle with everyday reading, writing and math tasks. The administration wants to create new jobs with the stimulus packages, but to take advantage of those new positions, these adults need basic literacy skills."

A separate study released last month named Minneapolis and Seattle as the most literate cities.

ProLiteracy, which promotes reading programs for the disadvantaged and encourages more government funding, estimates that illiteracy costs American businesses more than $60 billion each year in lost productivity and health and safety issues. Lack of funding at the federal, state and local levels prevents about 90 percent of the illiterate from getting help, the organization claims.

ProLiteracy also estimates:

  • 63 percent of prison inmates can't read
  • 774 million people worldwide are illiterate
  • Two-thirds of the world's illiterate are women

If parents can't read, there's a good chance children will be poor readers, the organization notes.

Robert Roy Britt is the Editorial Director of Imaginova. In this column, The Water Cooler, he takes a daily look at what people are talking about in the world of science and beyond.

Robert Roy Britt
Rob was a writer and editor at starting in 1999. He served as managing editor of Live Science at its launch in 2004. He is now Chief Content Officer overseeing media properties for the sites’ parent company, Purch. Prior to joining the company, Rob was an editor at The Star-Ledger in New Jersey, and in 1998 he was founder and editor of the science news website ExploreZone. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.