The level at which functional literacy is set rises as society becomes more complex, and it becomes increasingly difficult for and illiterate person to find work and cope with the other demands of everyday life.
It is hardly shocking that a federal report on adult literacy finds that the more formal education Americans have, the better they do on test that measure practical literacy. “The National Assessment of Adult Literacy,” released by the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics, shows that citizens with a college education were significantly better able than their peers to understand and analyze the information they confront in their everyday lives. So education does work and it is a good thing.
But at a time when high Schools, colleges and universities are under the microscope and policy makers are increasingly seeking to measure the students, the report is hardly a pat-on-the-back.
Here are just a few facts:
1. Nearly 1 billion adults in the world, (most of them women) are unable to read or write
2. Africa has the world’s highest illiteracy rate (54% of the adult population)
3. Asia has over 200 million illiterate people
In the United States:
1. In 1991 12% of 12-year olds could not find their country on a map
2. 25 million adults could not decipher a road sign
3. 16 million could not read a warning/poison label
What is the cost of illiteracy?
The Senate Select Committee on Equal Educational Opportunity estimated a figure of $237 billion in unrealized lifetime earning forfeited by men twenty-five to thirty-four years old who have less than high school level skills. That estimate was made in 1972, and requires serious updating.
Direct cost to business and taxpayers are approximately $20 billion.
Six billion dollars yearly (estimate: mid-1970s) go to child welfare costs and unemployment compensation caused directly by the numbers of illiterate adults unable to perform at standards necessary for available employment.
$6.6 billion yearly (estimate of 1983) is the minimal cost of prison maintenance for an estimated 260,000 inmates – out of a total state and federal prison population of about 2.4 million – whose imprisonment has been directly linked to functional illiteracy. The prison population represents the single highest concentration of adult illiterates. While criminal conviction of illiterate men and women cannot be identified exclusively with inability to read and write, the fact that 60 percent inmates cannot read above the grade school level surely provided some indication of one major reason for the criminal activity.
Swollen court cost, law-enforcement budgets in those urban areas in which two-fifths of all adults are unemployable for lack of literacy skills, not even to speak of the high cost of crime to those who are its victims, cannot be guessed but it must be many times the price of prison maintenance.
Several billion dollars go to workers’ compensation, damage to industrial equipment, and industrial insurance costs, directly caused by on-site accidents related to the inability of workers to read safety warnings, chemical-content designations, and instructions for the operation of complex machines.