Erik H. had just gotten his first job and was anxious to make a good start at it. But the fact that he didn’t tell his employer about his difficulty to read nearly cost him not only his job but his life.

Erik is not alone in dealing with this type of situation. There’s an estimated 32 million Americans who can’t read, and this problem comes with a very high price tag.

In 2015, one of every seven people in the US was illiterate, and the cost was in excess of $363 billion. Globally the price of illiteracy was $1.2 trillion.

According to Dr. Jack Miller of Central Connecticut State University, “Americans are becoming more and more educated, but less and less literate.” International achievement test scores in the US continue to lag behind scores in South Korea, Singapore, Japan, and those of many other countries.

The most obvious consequence of being unable to read is limited job opportunities. Many of these people have great difficulty training for a position, and some find that task impossible. This means that not only will illiterate people be unqualified for the most desirable jobs, but likely they will have difficulty getting hired for any job. As a result, they face a heightened risk of a lifetime of financial pressures.

But there’s a lot more at stake than just potentially lost earnings and job opportunities. Health, crime, welfare, family, and safety are some of the other ramifications. Moreover, illiteracy doesn’t affect just those individuals but also their families and society as a whole.

There are many statistics that bear this out and some of them follow:

*People who either can’t or who have very poor reading skills are twice as likely to be unemployed than their literate counterparts.

*Illiterate workers earn between 30% to 42% less and also have higher welfare rates.

*Forty-three percent of Americans with poor literacy skills live in poverty.

*Individuals with poor reading skills are also more likely to have poor health.

*Between 60% to 80% of prisoners in many nations read and write below basic levels.

Moreover, they also face challenges when traveling short distances, are more prone to accidents, and have difficulties choosing the items they need when shopping.

Why Can’t Johnny Read?

According to the website Quora, “Illiteracy is not just an epidemic in America; it’s the norm.” In various studies and polls, the majority of Americans report that they read one book or fewer per year. A third of all teenagers haven’t read a single book in the last year, amazing since most if not all of them presumably are in school.

According to Credit Donkey, some 30 million American adults aren’t able to comprehend texts that are appropriate for 10-year-olds, and 63 million read at an eighth-grade level or below. Only 11% of men and 12% of women are considered proficient readers.

How is it possible that with so much money spent on education there are still so many students and adults who have difficulty reading? It’s no secret that some schools and teachers are not accomplishing what is expected of them, but this is just part of the explanation; other factors shed more insight on why this is happening.

One of these is dyslexia, an issue that creates significant challenges in reading, writing, and spelling even for bright and hardworking students. It’s estimated that between 5% to 10% of the US population has dyslexia, but others believe this number is closer to 17%.

Some dyslexics have become extremely successful and popular. Henry Winkler, an award-winning actor (best known for playing “The Fonz” on the TV show Happy Days) and author, is dyslexic. Other famous dyslexics include Richard Branson, Tom Cruise, Albert Einstein, Walt Disney, Leonardo da Vinci, and former New York State governor and US Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. All of these individuals managed to overcome the intense hardships they experienced, but not all dyslexics are as fortunate.

Although reading difficulties is not a new problem, social trends are exacerbating it. For example, single-parent families are becoming more common these days, and this may be taking a toll on children’s literacy, according to Credit Donkey. “Research shows that kids who grow up with both parents at home score roughly 45 points higher on literacy reading assessments,” the website reports.

The very hectic and pressured schedules most of us have to contend with also may impact reading skills. An estimated 77% of children who are read to are more likely to read or attempt to read on their own. This compares with 57% of kids who don’t have story time at home – a very significant difference.

The rise of the Internet has also added to this problem. As fascinating as reading is, having to compete with media that show beautiful and changing colors on monitors accompanied by dramatic music – standard fare in computer games, TV, movies, and music videos – is a very difficult battle indeed.

To be sure, reading is not going out of style. Some schools offer both remedial and enrichment programs in reading and so do some libraries. Programs like RIF (Reading Is Fundamental) “inspired a passion for reading among all children” according to that organization; RIF claims to have helped 40 million Americans learn to read. Classes in adult literacy also are offered at various schools and at organizations like the “Y”.

It’s nice but not necessary to read the classics. But basic reading skills – the ability to read the directions on bottles of medicine, the travel information on the entrance to subways, or the simple questions that need to be filled out on forms and applications – these are vital and necessary skills that need to be mastered by everyone.

Illiteracy often takes a back seat to the many financial, safety, and social problems that need to be dealt with immediately. However, over the long term, individuals, families, and society pay a high price for this reality. That’s very unfortunate. It doesn’t have to be like that.


Gerald Harris is a financial and feature writer. Gerald can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.