What Will You Do to Support Adult Literacy?
Posted by Michele Diecuch on February 27, 2020 in categoryFacts & ResearchcategoryNewscategoryAdvocacy

Bernie, did you know 43 million adults in the U.S. struggle to read?

Recently, presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders talked about the widespread literacy programs that were started in the late 1950s in Cuba.


ProLiteracy certainly condemns any authoritarian nation or dictatorship. However, we are glad to hear a presidential candidate say, “I think teaching people to read and write is a good thing”, as Sanders did recently while bringing a spotlight to the positive nature of adult literacy on the national stage. Now, we want to hear how Sanders will get behind that sentiment for the United States.


Bernie Sanders, if you are elected President, what will you do to support adult literacy?  


In the United States, low adult literacy has been a major problem for decades. In fact, 43 million adults read at or below a third-grade level.1 Adult literacy is explicably linked to serious issues facing Americans—poverty, health care, parenting, economic inequality, and citizenship.

The facts are clear:

  • 43% of adults living in poverty have limited literacy skills.2
  • Low literacy costs the U.S. at least $225 billion each year in non-productivity in the workforce, crime, and loss of tax revenue due to unemployment.3
  • An excess of $230 billion a year in health care costs is linked to low adult literacy skills.4 Low literacy impedes adults’ abilities to make appropriate health decisions.
  • 75% of state inmates and 59% of federal inmates did not complete high school or can be classified as low literate. Research shows that inmates who are educated are 43% less likely to return to prison.5
  • The children of low-literate parents are exposed to 30,000,000 fewer words and enter kindergarten with a much larger skills gap than their peers.6

How does the United States measure compared to other developed countries?

Results from the 2013 Survey of Adult Skills by the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), the literacy skill level of U.S. adults ages 16 to 65 is well below the international average of adults in 23 other developed countries.7 We are falling behind in the worldwide marketplace.

There is a solution. Basic skills programs have proven to produce positive impact on the lives of Americans, their children, and their communities—thereby helping to break the intergenerational cycle of illiteracy and poverty.


The Longitudinal Study of Adult Learning (LSAL) conducted by Dr. Stephen Reder, Professor Emeritus at Portland State University, provided evidence of the positive impact of investment in adult basic skills in five areas—economic gains, literacy advancement, high school equivalency attainment, post-secondary engagement, and voting activity.8

Despite the research linking investment in adult basic skills and positive life outcomes, federal budgetary support of adult education has been flat or declining (when accounting for inflation) for the past two decades. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) Act of 2014, the main source of funding to support adult education and family literacy grants, continues to be inadequately funded. Only a fraction of the adults in need are currently being served. The 43 million adults who need to increase their literacy skills and gain a high school equivalency in order to move to higher education simply cannot be served through private funding support alone.


If adult literacy is not addressed in a more serious way, not only will a cycle of illiteracy continue, but the U.S. will continue to fall behind other countries in education, health care, poverty rates, and more.


Bernie Sanders AND other candidates: What is your commitment to solving the growing adult literacy crisis in the United States?

Contact your House Representative  Contact your Senator


1OECD, "OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills," OECD Publishing, 2013  

2OECD, "Time for the U.S. to Reskill?: What the Survey of Adult Skills Says," OECD Skills Studies, OECD Publishing, 2013  

3OECD, "OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills," OECD Publishing, 2013  

4Vernon JA, Trujillo A, Rosenbaum S, DeBuono B., "Low Health Literacy: Implications for National Health Care Policy," Washington, DC: George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, 2007  

5Northeastern University - Center for Labor Market Studies, "The Consequences of Dropping Out of High School," Northeastern University, 01 October 200  0

6Betty Hart & Todd R. Risley, "Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children," Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., 30 June 1995

7OECD, "Time for the U.S. to Reskill?: What the Survey of Adult Skills Says," OECD Skills Studies, OECD Publishing, 2013 

8Morgan, Waite, Diecuch, “The Case for Investment in Adult Education,” ProLiteracy, 2017

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