Low Adult Literacy Costs U.S. $2.2 Trillion a Year

The U.S. could be losing up to $2.2 trillion annually due to low adult literacy rates according to a new study by the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy and Gallup.

A young adult man reading the mail  and looking worried

According to a new study released by the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy and Gallup examining the impact of adult literacy on the U.S. economy, the nation could be losing up to $2.2 trillion annually due to low adult literacy rates.

“America’s low literacy crisis is largely ignored, historically underfunded and woefully under-researched, despite being one of the great solvable problems of our time,” argued British A. Robinson, president and CEO of the Barbara Bush Foundation. “We’re proud to contribute to the collective knowledge base with this first-of-its-kind study, documenting literacy’s relationship to equity and economic mobility in the U.S.”

“The U.S. confronts a long-standing challenge of high-income inequality, with strikingly large gaps in wealth and income between people of different races,” explained Dr. Jonathan Rothwell, Gallup’s principal economist, a New York Times contributor and the author of A Republic of Equals: A Manifesto for a Just Society. “On top of these long-term challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic has weakened the economy and overlapped with a robust movement addressing racial injustice. Eradicating illiteracy would not solve every problem, but it would help make substantial progress in reducing inequality in the long-term and give a much-needed boost to local and regional economies throughout the country.”

Key findings from the study include:

  • 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.
  • Income is strongly related to literacy. The average annual income of adults who read at the equivalent of a sixth-grade level is $63,000. This is significantly higher than adults who read at a third to fifth grade level, who earn $48,000, and much higher than those at the lowest levels of literacy, who earn just $34,000 on average. 
  • Economic gains would be high in large metropolitan areas. The nation’s largest metropolitan areas – including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Dallas – would all stand to gain at or just above 10% of their GDP by bringing all adults to a sixth-grade reading level. 

“Eradicating illiteracy would be enormously valuable under any circumstances,” Rothwell said. “Given the current economic and health challenges, there is even more at stake in ensuring that everyone can fully participate in society.”

“This research clearly shows that investing in adult literacy is absolutely critical to strengthening our nation’s economy,” added Robinson.

Governor Jeb Bush joined Rothwell and Robinson for an in-depth virtual discussion of the study’s implications, which can be found at www.BarbaraBush.org/webinars.

The full report “Assessing the Economic Gains from Eradicating Illiteracy Nationally and Regionally within the United States,” is available at www.BarbaraBush.org.

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