By The Numbers: Literacy in America

Next Thursday, Sept. 8 marks the 50th International Literacy Day, as proclaimed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In honor of the occasion, here are some figures on literacy in the United States.



The United States’ world ranking for highest literacy rate (99 percent)



The ratio of books per child in middle-income neighborhoods



The ratio of age-appropriate books per child in low-income neighborhoods


36 million

Adults in the United States who cannot read, write or do basic math above a third grade level


$225 billion

Cost of low literacy to the United States in non-productivity in the workforce, crime and loss of tax revenue due to unemployment


43 percent

Adults with the lowest literacy levels who live in poverty


1.2 million-plus

Number of young adults who drop out of high school every year


75 percent

State prison inmates that can be classified as low literate


$3.2 billion

Money spent on children’s books in America in 2009



Minutes a day of independent, out-of-school reading that can expose students to more than a million words of text in a year


Sources: ProLiteracy U.S. Adult Literacy Facts; Neuman, Susan B. and David K. Dickinson, ed. Handbook of Early Literacy Research, Volume 2. New York, NY: 2006, p. 31; Anderson, Wilson, & Fielding, 1988

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