Column: The high cost of low literacy

By Heather Michon, correspondent

This week’s Fluvanna Review has focused on the pleasure of reading – how we support our youngest readers, the places we can share our books with the community.

But that’s only one side of the story. For many people, reading is a real struggle – something to avoid.

Today, about 43 percent of the American adults are considered functionally illiterate, with over 32 million unable to read at a third-grade level. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) says 50 percent of Americans read at or below the eighth-grade level. Those numbers haven’t budged since the 1990s.

Low literacy comes at a high cost for society. It can keep people locked in poverty and impacts their health and longevity.

Multiple studies show 43 percent of low-literacy citizens live below the poverty line. Low-literacy adults are twice as likely to be unemployed, and those who are employed earn between 25-43 percent less than more literate peers. That alone costs the U.S. an estimated $225 billion a year in potential tax revenue and lost productivity.

Almost half of Americans can’t read well enough to follow medical instructions, resulting in an estimated $230 billion in avoidable health care costs – to say nothing of the needless discomfort and poorer medical outcomes suffered by low-literacy patients.

Then there’s the generational aspect. Schools do their best, but study after study show that literacy begins at home and starts right after birth. Reading to children from infancy dramatically boosts their vocabulary and reading skill by the time they start kindergarten. But more than 70 percent of children with low-literacy parents don’t always get that boost, and it negatively affects their entire school career.

In a government report last year, about 65 percent of the nation’s eighth graders – including 37 percent of Virginians – were rated as “not proficient” in reading at their grade level. One in six young adults drop out before graduating high school.

It’s a problem that will only grow over time.

Consider this: Until 1900, the storehouse of human knowledge doubled about once a century. By 1945, it was doubling every 25 years. But since around 2000, knowledge has been doubling every 13 months. And most of that knowledge is still in written form.

The ability to read and understand new information and new ideas is a critical skill for the 21st century.

Finding ways to assist low-literacy adults can be a challenge. Many people don’t see the benefit of improving their reading skills or feel awkward about reaching out. Consider volunteering with a group like Literacy Volunteers Charlottesville Albemarle ( Join, or a start, a literacy ministry with your church. Offer assistance when you see people struggling with reading.

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