Facts about Literacy

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.

COABE Video: Importance of literacy


The Numbers Don't Lie

Facts and Statistics - United States

More than 36 million American adults struggle to read, write, do math, and use technology above a third grade level. The recent Program of the International Assessment of Adult Literacy (PIACC) examined the United States and 23 other industrialized countries and found:

  • The U.S. mean literacy score was below the international average - ranking 16th out of 24 countries.

  • Only 12% of adults in the U.S. performed at the highest proficiency level on the literacy scale.

  • Only 9% of adults in the U.S. performed at the highest proficiency level on the numeracy scale.

  • Only 6% of adults in the U.S. and 8% of adults under 35 in the U.S. performed at the highest proficiency level on the problem-solving/technology scale.

Adult Literacy in the United States

Current federal appropriations for adult basic education in the U.S. total just over $600 million,

which provides funding to serve just three million individuals.

There is a correlation between a low literacy rate and a low paycheck.

• Just 35% of individuals with below basic skills are employed full time, while 64% in the proficient category have full-time jobs.

• The salaries of adults with below-basic literacy skills are, on average, $28,000 less than salaries of adults with proficient skills.

• Single mothers who lack a high school degree are much more likely to be on welfare than women who have a high school degree.

• Women with low literacy are twice as likely as men to be in the lowest earnings category of $300 a week or less.

• Minimum wage workers increased wages by 18% to 25% within 18 months of exiting an adult education program.

• A 1% increase in average literacy rates yields a 1.5% permanent increase in GDP.


• People with low skills are four times more likely to have poor health (two times the national average).


• The percentage of employed adults in the U.S. who performed at the highest proficiency level was lower than the international average of employed adults who performed at the highest proficiency level.

• The U.S. has the highest levels of income inequality and literacy skills inequality.


• Americans with a high school diploma or less scored lower in literacy, on average, than their counterparts in the other 23 countries.

• People who come from low educated families are 10 times more likely to have low literacy skills.

• The difference in literacy proficiency between people with the lowest and highest education levels was greater in the U.S. than in any of the other 23 countries.


• The percentage of black and Hispanic adults in the U.S. who performed at the highest proficiency level on the literacy scale was lower than the percentage of white adults.

• Literacy differences between native-born and foreign-born Americans were greater than the average internationally.

• The difference in average literacy scores between the youngest and oldest Americans was smaller than in any other country.

Source: Proliteracy America


International Facts

Per capita income in countries with a literacy rate less tan 55% averages about $600.