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Adult Literacy Facts

Adult literacy can change everything.


Health. Gender equality. Poverty. Every important social issue is impacted by low literacy. When individuals learn how to read, write, do basic math, and use computers, they have the power to lift themselves out of poverty, lower health care costs, find and keep sustainable employment, and ultimately change their lives.



Family Literacy


A mother’s reading skill is the greatest determinant of her children’s future academic success, outweighing other factors, such as neighborhood and family income.


Children of less-educated parents are much more likely to become low-skilled adults. U.S. adults with low levels of education who have parents with low levels of education are 10 times more likely to have low skills than are those who have higher-educated parents.


Earnings and Employment


3X the earnings. Median weekly earnings in 2018 for those with the highest levels of educational attainment—doctoral and professional degrees—were more than triple those with the lowest level, less than a high school diploma. Workers age 25 and over who have less education than a high school diploma had the highest unemployment rate (5.4%) and lowest median weekly earnings ($592), three times less than the highest level of education.


The 2020 recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic saw adults with less than a high school diploma suffer the highest unemployment rate compared to all other education levels. 


Health Literacy


It is estimated between $106–$238 billion in health care costs a year are linked to low adult literacy skills.  Adults with limited health literacy are hospitalized and use emergency services at significantly higher rates than those with higher skills.


Cost of Low Literacy

Improving adult literacy would have enormous economic benefits. Bringing all adults to the equivalent of a sixth grade reading level would generate an additional $2.2 trillion – or 10% of GDP – in annual income for the country.


English Language Learners

The U.S. has—by far—the world’s largest immigrant population, holding about one-in-five of the world’s immigrants.


Among immigrants ages 5 and older in 2018, only half (53%) are proficient English speakers.


This severely limits their access to jobs, college, and citizenship and increases their vulnerability to living in poverty. Pew Research estimates that between 2015 and 2065, immigrants and their descendants are projected to increase the U.S. population by 103 million people.



Seventy-five percent of state incarcerated individuals did not complete high school or can be classified as low literate. Incarcerated individuals who participate in correctional education programs are 43% less likely to recidivate than inmates who do not.




Government Funding and Programs in Jeopardy

Adult education is in critical need for services. A decline in federal and state funding in the past 10 years has resulted in programs serving only a fraction of the adults in need. Currently, 50% of adult education programs are struggling with long student waiting lists due to demand exceeding program capacity. At the present levels of public funding, less than 10 percent of adults in need are receiving services.



Low literacy is a global crisis that affects all of us. That’s why it’s so important to understand the issues and confront the facts head on. Only then can we can stand together to fight for change.


To learn more, click here to visit Pro Literacy’s Adult Literacy Facts Page.