Illiterate America

September 14, 1993

A Department of Education Study showing that nearly half of American adults cannot read or write well enough to write a simple letter or calculate a grocery bill is a harbinger of rough times ahead. The report underscores in the starkest possible terms the extent to which adult literacy in America simply is not keeping pace with the kinds of skills required in today's economy.

The latest study confirmed the findings of earlier surveys that showed about 10 percent of adults have severe difficulty reading and writing, the traditional measure of illiteracy. But it went on to examine how well people understand English and perform simple calculations involving addition and subtraction. The results suggest that many everyday tasks, from grasping the details of a newspaper story to reading a bus schedule or making out a bank deposit slip, are barely within the ability of nearly half of the nation's 191 million adults.

Education Department officials attributed part of the findings to low levels of education and a growing number of adults whose first language is not English. More than half the Hispanics and Asians who scored in the lowest literacy categories were born in other countries. But while experts acknowledged that foreign born adults probably skewed the overall rate, the fact they were U.S. residents still rendered the study a fair assessment of the nation's level of literacy.

That spells trouble for the future, because even though overall education and literacy rates have gradually risen over the last several decades, the demands of the workplace have increased even faster. The work force increasingly is becoming polarized between highly skilled workers and people whose skills are marginal at best.

The study has implications in other areas as well. Given the low skills of many adults, for example, are there limits to the effectiveness of government-sponsored job readiness programs? Similarly, is it practical to cap welfare benefits after two years, as some proponents of welfare reform have suggested, if the women forced into the job market haven't the skills to manage even entry level jobs?

These findings also underscore the terrible economic and social price the nation pays for the failure of its public schools to prepare young people for employment in the real world. That alone should be a wake up call for the nation to get a handle on this problem, which threatens to undermine America's long-term ability to compete successfully in the global marketplace.

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