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Illiteracy Continues its Growth in the United States

A new federal study finds that an estimated 32 million adults in the USA — about one in seven — have such low literacy skills that it would be tough for them to read anything more challenging than a children’s picture book or to understand a medication’s side effects listed on a pill bottle.

Though many communities are making strides to tackle the problem, it’s worsening elsewhere — in some cases significantly.

Overall, the study finds, the nation hasn’t made a dent in its adult-literacy problem: From 1992 to 2003, it shows, the USA added about 23 million adults to its population; in that period, an estimated 3.6 million more joined the ranks of adults with low literacy skills. How low? For man it would be a challenge to read this newspaper article.
“They really cannot read … paragraphs (or) sentences that are connected,” says Sheida White, a researcher at the U.S. Education Department.

The findings come from the department’s National Assessment of Adult Literacy, a survey of more than 19,000 Americans ages 16 and older. The 2003 survey is a follow-up to a similar one in 1992 and for the first time lets the public see literacy rates as far down as county levels.

In many cases, some states made sizable gains. In Mississippi, the percentage of adults with low skills dropped 9 percentage points, from 25% to 16%. In every one of its 82 counties, low-skill rates dropped — in a few cases by 20 percentage points or more. Minneapolis and Seattle are two cities with the highest literacy rates.

By contrast, in several large states — California, New York, Florida and Nevada, for instance — the number of adults with low skills rose.

David Harvey, president and CEO of ProLiteracy, an adult-literacy organization, says Mississippi “invested more in education … and they have done innovative programming. We need much more of that.”

The findings are published online at nces.ed.gov/naal/estimates/index.aspx.

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