I have heard about it being a problem, then googled the subject and was surprised to see the number of adults in the US who cannot read, according to this PBS story, is 36 million.

Why are there so many adults who can't read in the US?
Doesn't it impact the economy?

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    I think what you are looking at with those stats is something called functional illiteracy: i.e. folk who don't read well enough to grasp moderately complex meanings. Rather than people who can't read at all. 10%-ish isn't that high a number apparently because they put the threshold fairly high. With an even higher threshold, see the chart in this (French language) article: lapresse.ca/actualites/education/2019-12-21/… USA doesn't look good but neither do other places. Would love to find source PISA study. Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 2:36
  • wiki for functional illiteracy but lacks entries to compare to other countries. Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 2:37
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica: "Would love to find source PISA study." maybe the same as in skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/41802/… (Because France ranks below Quebec/Canada there as well.) Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 4:56
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    This question would be better if it would try to find numbers for comparable countries. So what is the rate of illiterate people in Japan, Germany, France, China, Italy, Canada, Mexico? Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 6:52
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    Is that the number who cannot read in any language, or the number who cannot read English?
    – shoover
    Commented Sep 16, 2022 at 0:40

1 Answer 1


Second question: Yes perhaps by trillions of dollars.

First question: It's complicated. The actual number is hard to measure, since literacy isn't a digital, yes/no property. There is a spectrum of reading ability, and so there are lots of different estimates of the number of illiterate people in the USA. Depending on how you define "illiterate" estimates vary from about 8 million to 130 million.

This is hard to count, by being illiterate you can't interact with the tools that most surveys use. You can't fill out a questionnaire on your reading skills if you can't read!

Nevertheless, by most measures, the level is higher than in comparable countries in Western Europe.

There are multiple reasons: Some are historical. A number of factors created a class of people who didn't read. This has lead to family illiteracy, and a cycle of poverty and illiteracy that continues to this day:

  • There is a history of a racially segregated and discriminatory education system. Specifically, black people were not taught to read in some parts of the USA well into the twentieth century.
  • There was job market in which reading skills were not needed to obtain a living wage. In the past, there were jobs in farming and factories for illiterate people.
  • There is a decentralised education system, with schools in poor areas not getting the same treatment as those in rich areas.
  • There are high levels of immigration. Some immigrants may be from less economically developed countries with high levels of illiteracy, or they may read in a different language, but not English.
  • Are you confident the factors cited are right? From the second cited source, "White and Hispanic adults make up the largest percentage of U.S. adults with low levels of English literacy, 35 percent and 34 percent respectively (figure 3)."
    – Allure
    Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 8:48
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    @Allure The misleading thing with those kinds of statistics is that non-Hispanic whites are somewhere between 50-60% of the population, so 35% is actually underrepresentation. According to that source more than half of Hispanic whites that are functionally illiterate were not born in the US, which falls into the answer's last point. On the other hand blacks appear to be overrepresented at 26%, almost all of which were born in the US. That doesn't necessarily mean that they are overrepresented due to historical discrimination but could be evidence of it. Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 15:54
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    "Binary" might be a better word here than "digital."
    – phoog
    Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 19:17
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    This might back up what is said here: theguardian.com/us-news/2018/sep/07/… Commented Sep 16, 2022 at 15:53
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    one of the most significant "risk factors" for being illiterate is having illiterate parents, so the effects of segregation several generations ago are still significant. The US remains a society and culture that is segregated by race, in education and otherwise.
    – James K
    Commented Sep 30, 2022 at 5:58

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