Adult Education Helps Break the Cycle of Poverty
Posted by Michele Bellso on November 07, 2016 in categoryFacts & ResearchcategoryAdvocacy

Adult Education Helps Break the Cycle of Poverty

An estimated 36 million adults in the U.S. struggle with basic reading, writing, and math skills. These individuals struggle to read a menu, fill out a job application, or read a bedtime story to their children.

Adult literacy is a factor in almost every socioeconomic issue, including parenting, health care, workforce development, and poverty. To address these issues effectively, we must invest in educating adults with low literacy. Adult education helps break the cycle of intergenerational illiteracy and poverty by giving adults the skills they need to be successful as workers and parents.

How does adult literacy impact the economy?

Low literacy adversely affects the employability and earnings of American adults. The widening “skills gap” aggravates income inequality. Adults without a high school diploma are more than twice as likely to be unemployed, work in low-wage jobs, live in poverty, and rely on government aid programs than those with higher levels of education.

  • 43% of adults with the lowest literacy levels live in poverty.
  • 70% of welfare recipients are high school dropouts.

The value of adult literacy to our economy is estimated at more than $200 billion per year in additional wages and reduced costs for public support programs. Educating adults is a sound investment. Yet, public funding for adult education programs has declined over the past 15 years despite most adult education programs having long student waiting lists. Programs can only serve a fraction of the adults who need services.

How does adult literacy impact children?


Research shows that you will not solve the academic achievement gap by educating children without addressing their parents’ needs for basic education and training. Children of low-literate parents are more likely to get poor grades, display behavioral problems, have high absentee rates, repeat school years, or drop out.

  • Children of parents with low literacy skills have a 72 percent chance of being at the lowest reading levels themselves.
  • The single greatest indicator of a child’s future success is the literacy level of his or her parents.

Investing in our children’s education will impact future generations. But to break the cycle of poverty, we also need to improve the literacy skills of the parents. Low-literate parents who improve their own skills are more likely to have a positive impact on their children’s educational achievements and have children who stay in school longer.

Strong adult literacy and education programs bring a powerful return on investment, impacting the lives of the adult learners, their families, and communities. 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.

How can I help?

You can help adult and family literacy in many ways:

You can also help raise awareness by talking to your friends and family about literacy and sharing facts and videos about adult literacy on social media. We ran an advertisement in yesterday’s New York Times special Giving section about the impact adult literacy has on children and families. A copy of the ad is below. You can share this image on social media.

ProLiteracy New York Times literacy advertisement

Together, we can raise adult literacy rates and improve lives worldwide.


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Research - White Paper

Research proves the correlation between obtaining literacy skills and the return on investment related to improving an adult’s life and future.

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