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Business, Diversity & Inclusion, Numbers

Numbers: Illiteracy in the United States

A recent post on FaceBook asked if most people understood the difference between illiteracy and innumeracy? Perhaps some of you are thinking that these words have the same meaning. Depending on the context that is being used, they could mean the same thing. However, innumeracy, the topic of a future post, falls under the illiteracy umbrella. The basic definition of illiteracy is the inability to read or write.

Here are some current illiteracy stats for the United States (Source: Statistics Brain, July 22, 2017):

  • 14% – percent of adults who can’t read (below a basic level)
  • 32,000,000 – number of adults in the U.S. who can’t read
  • 70% – percent of prison inmates who can’t read
  • 19% – high school graduates who can’t read

Add to the above the demographics of adults who read below a basic level:

  • 41% – Hispanic
  • 24% – Black
  • 9% – White
  • 13% – Other

What is often overlooked when discussing illiteracy is that there is more than one type of illiteracy, and not every type is addressed through the formal education process. Illiteracy also refers to the lack of knowledge in other subject areas. As an example, if you have never heard of Shakespeare, Plato, or Socrates, some people might consider you culturally illiterate. Some of these “other subject areas” can be just as debilitating as the inability to read, but go unnoticed because the wider community is unaware of their existence. A few, such as scientific and functional illiteracy, have even resulted in death for some unfortunate people.

According to Wikipedia, functional illiteracy is imprecisely defined, with different criteria from nation to nation, and study to study. A useful distinction can be made between pure illiteracy and functional illiteracy. Purely illiterate persons cannot read or write in any capacity, for all practical purposes. In contrast, functionally illiterate persons can read and possibly write simple sentences with a limited vocabulary, but cannot read or write well enough to deal with the everyday requirements of life in their own society.

Expanding our focus, let’s take a look at different subject areas of illiteracy. This list was compiled by Kate Mulcahy on ListVerse [Ref 1]:

  1. Visual
  2. Trans-literacy
  3. Technological
  4. Statistical
  5. Scientific
  6. Reading and writing (functional)
  7. Racial
  8. Numerical (innumeracy)
  9. Mental health
  10. Media
  11. Information
  12. Health
  13. Functional
  14. Financial
  15. Emotional
  16. Ecological
  17. Cultural
  18. Critical
  19. Computer
  20. Agricultural

Most often, our reference to illiteracy is tied to functional illiteracy. One can be functionally literate in his or her ability to read and write, yet be ignorant on one or more of the above subject areas. One area of illiteracy that is not included in the above list is morals.  That said, I’m sure each one of us is illiterate in one or more of the above subject areas.

Ensuring a high level of reading literacy has become a priority of many governments around the world. As we move towards the end of the second decade of the 21st century, literacy will play a more important role in the work place and life, in general. Poor reading proficiency often translates to a smaller paycheck, especially for women. Men with lower literacy skills are twice as likely to earn $650 or more per week than women at the same reading level.  On the other hand, women with low literacy skills are twice as likely to earn only $300 or less per week than their comparable male counterparts. [Ref 2]

The topic of Innumeracy will be covered in a later post. Innumeracy is the mathematical equivalent of illiteracy, or incompetence with numbers rather than words. Innumeracy is a problem with many otherwise educated and knowledgeable people.

While many people would be ashamed to admit they are illiterate, there is very little shame in saying “I’ve never been good with math.”

Sources Cited:

  1. 20 Types of Literacy, by Kate Mulcahy for List Verse, April 4, 2012 https://listverse.com/2012/04/04/20-types-of-illiteracy/
  2. Shocking Facts: 23 Statistics on Illiteracy in America, by Rebecca Lake for Credit Donkey, updated May 12, 2016, https://www.creditdonkey.com/illiteracy-in-america.html#rates




About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.



  1. Pingback: I’ve Been Thinking… | BridgeBizSTEM - February 8, 2018

  2. Pingback: Numbers: America Also Has An Innumeracy Problem | BridgeBizSTEM - March 20, 2018

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