The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

November 8, 2013

Functional illiteracy continues to grow, but there is help

Point Blank column

By John Blankenship

— Nearly half of the U.S. population is affected by it.

And we’re not talking about oil company deceit, influenza, AIDS, mental illness or liberal extremists — we’re talking about illiteracy.

A number of national literacy studies reveal that an estimated 47 percent of the American adult population performs only the simplest reading skills. In other words, some 50 million U.S. citizens can barely add and total a bank slip or identify a piece of specific information in a brief news story.

Astonishing as it may seem, it’s true. One in four children in America grows up without learning how to read.

And what’s more, another 50 million citizens cannot calculate a total purchase, determine the difference in price between two items and locate a specific point on a map.

Believe it or not, only about 60 million people in the nation can decipher information from long texts or legal documents.

Fewer than 40 million Americans can complete any challenging literacy tasks that require above average reading skills. An estimated 25 million Americans, meanwhile, cannot read or write at all.

The U.S. Department of Education claims that an additional 45 million people are considered ‘functionally illiterate” — those without the reading or writing skills to find work. Sadly, the vast majority of Americans do not know they do not have the skills to earn a living in our increasingly technological society, according to a statement released a decade ago by the U.S. Secretary of Education.

In our post-industrial world, most Americans make a living with their heads instead of their hands. Education — not steel, coal or even capital — is the key to our economic future.

It is estimated that each year more than 700,000 high school seniors graduate unable to read their diploma.

Illiteracy among Americans also signals a growing health risk. Doctors note that adults with limited literacy face formidable problems using the health care system. In one study, an estimated 30 percent of some 2,650 patients lacked the literacy skills to understand the written instructions on prescription bottles.

At the same time, adults experiencing reading difficulties are less likely to use screening procedures, follow medical regimens, keep appointments or seek help in the course of a serious illness.

And sadly, two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of the fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare. More than 70 percent of America’s inmates cannot read above the fourth grade level.

Literacy is a learned skill; but unfortunately, illiteracy is passed down from parents who can neither read nor write.

And nearly 85 percent of the juveniles who face trial in the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate, proving that there is a close relationship between literacy and crime. More than 60 percent of all inmates are described by authorities as functionally illiterate.

In addition, about 75 percent of Americans who receive food stamps perform at the lowest levels of literacy; 90 percent of high school dropouts are on welfare.

And teenage girls ages 16 to 19 who live below the poverty level and have below average literacy skills are six times more likely to have children out of wedlock than the girls their age who can read proficiently.

Reports also reveal that low literacy directly costs the health care industry more than $70 million every year.

According to one National Adult Literacy Survey, roughly 40 million adult Americans cannot read; another 50 million can recognize so few printed words they are limited to a fourth or fifth grade reading level; one out of every four teenagers drops out of school, and among those who graduate, one out of every four has the equivalent or less than an eighth grade education.

The number of functionally illiterate adults is increasing by approximately 2.25 million persons each year, according to current estimates by the National Right to Read Foundation.

The federal government alone has more than 79 literacy-related programs administered by 14 federal agencies. The total amount of money being spent by the government on literacy can only be guessed at because there has never been a complete assessment prepared.

A conservative estimate, however, would place the amount at more than $10 billion each year, and growing steadily.


Top o’ the morning!

— Blankenship is a reporter for The Register-Herald.