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. 

Literacy Mother Reading Icon

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.1 

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.2

3 Times the Earnings

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.3  

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. 4


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.5

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.6

The U.S. has—by far—the world’s largest immigrant population, holding about one-in-five of the world’s immigrants.7

Among immigrants ages 5 and older in 2018, only half (53%) are proficient English speakers.8 

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. 9

Seventy-five percent of state incarcerated individuals did not complete high school or can be classified as low literate10. Incarcerated individuals who participate in correctional education programs are 43% less likely to recidivate than individuals who do not.11

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.12 At the present levels of public funding, less than 10 percent of adults in need are receiving services.

1. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. (2010, October 25). Improving mothers’ literacy skills may be best way to boost children’s achievement. National Institute of Health.

2. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education. (2015, February). Making Skills Everyone’s Business: A Call to Transform Adult Learning in the United States. 

3. Career Outlook Data on Display. (2020, May). Learn more, earn more: Education leads to higher wages, lower unemployment : Career Outlook. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

4. Falk, G., Carter, J., Nicchitta, I., Nyhof, E., & Romero, P. (2020, December 7). Unemployment Rates During the COVID-19 Pandemic: In Brief. Congressional Research Service.

5. Vernon, J. A., Trujillo, A., Rosenbaum, S. & DeBuono, B. (2007, October). Low health literacy: Implications for national health policy. Health Sciences Research Commons. Washington, DC: George Washington University. Retrieved from

6. Rothwell, J. (2020, September). Assessing the Economic Gains of Eradicating Illiteracy Nationally and Regionally in the United States. Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.

7. Connor, P., Cohn, D. V., & Gonzalez-Barrera, A. (2013, December 17). Changing Patterns of Global Migration and Remittances. Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends Project.

8. Budiman, A. (2020, August 20). Key findings about U.S. immigrants. Pew Research Center.

9. Pew Research Center. (2015, September 28). Modern Immigration Wave Brings 59 Million to U.S. Pew Research Center's Hispanic Trends Project.

10. Wolf Harlow, Ph.D, C. (2003). Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report: Education and Correctional Populations.

11. Davis, L., Bozick, R., Steele, J., Saunders, J., & Miles, J. (2013). Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education: A Meta-Analysis of Programs That Provide Education to Incarcerated Adults.

12. ProLiteracy Annual Statistical Report. (2021, January).

The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC)


The Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) is an international survey conducted in 40 countries that measures the key cognitive and workplace skills needed for individuals to participate in society and for economies to prosper. PIAAC is designed to assess adults in different countries over a broad range of abilities, from simple reading to complex problem solving skills.

Key Findings

Annual Statistical Report

The Annual Statistical Report compiles the results of the most recent annual member survey into a concise and easy to interpret visual representation of key findings.

Current Report

International Facts

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.


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