Posted by: bluesyemre | July 26, 2022

Reading The Numbers: 130 Million American Adults Have Low Literacy Skills, But Funding Differs Drastically By State

Photo by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash

About 130 million adults in the U.S. have low literacy skills according to a Gallup analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education. This means more than half of Americans between the ages of 16 and 74 (54%) read below the equivalent of a sixth-grade level.

Literacy is broadly defined as the ability to read and write, but it more accurately encompasses the comprehension, evaluation and utilization of information, which is why people describe many different types of literacy — such as health, financial, legal, etc. Low literacy skills can profoundly affect the day-to-day success of adults in the real world, and these impacts extend to their families, too.

Dr. Iris Feinberg, associate director of the Adult Literacy Research Center at Georgia State University, said anyone can have low literacy skills.

“It’s not just people who are poor. It’s not just people who are racial minorities. It’s not just people who speak funny because they’re from the South. It literally can be anybody,” she said.

Historically, adult literacy has been underfunded and underrepresented in academic and scientific research, according to Feinberg, a sentiment echoed by Dr. Margaret Patterson, a senior researcher at Research Allies for Lifelong Learning.

The most recent national survey on adult literacy is from 2012-2017, conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics as part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). The U.S. ranks 16th among the 33 OECD nations included in this study.

Part of a larger international study, the PIAAC defines five levels of literacy proficiency, with Level 1 as the lowest and Level 5 as the highest.

Nationally, over 1 in 5 adults have a literacy proficiency at or below Level 1. Adults in this range have difficulty using or understanding print materials. Those on the higher end of this category can perform simple tasks based on the information they read, but adults below Level 1 may only understand very basic vocabulary or be functionally illiterate.

In contrast, 46% of adults in the U.S. have a literacy proficiency at or above Level 3. Adults at Levels 3, 4 and 5 have varying degrees of proficiency in understanding, interpreting and synthesizing information from multiple, complex texts to infer meaning and draw conclusions.

What’s more, several of the counties with the nation’s very lowest adult literacy performance are located in these southern states. For example, the 10 counties with the highest percentage of their populations at or below Level 1 literacy are in Texas, primarily along the U.S.-Mexican border.  

By using small area estimation modeling with data from the American Community Survey, the PIAAC provides indirect literacy estimations at the county level for all 50 states. Some of these high county-level percentages stem from high populations of immigrants, whose first language is not English. The PIAAC only assesses English literacy, though its background questionnaire is given in English and Spanish.

While Feinberg said anyone can have low literacy, adults who have poor reading skills tend to live in underserved communities with few resources, or what she calls a “print desert.” In these areas, she said there is little signage beyond local stores as well as few libraries and bookstores.

Even with the internet’s ability to make books and other reading materials more universally accessible, adults who live in “print deserts” may still face serious challenges.

“They likely went to schools that weren’t supported by a wealthy tax base,” Feinberg said. “And so, they don’t have good internet access. They may not know how to use the internet if [they] can’t spell very well. You’re [going to] have a really hard time finding things.”

To support adults with low literacy rates and lacking other important skills, adult basic education (ABE) and literacy programs provide environments for learning at the local level. But they also provide opportunities for data collection.

Many of these programs offer one-on-one tutoring and group classes for literacy, numeracy, English as a second language (ESL) and high school equivalency among other topics.

Patterson said adult literacy program attendance nationally has decreased over the past two decades due to lack of funding and public schools pushing for more students to graduate high school. She estimates that these programs are losing about 100,000 people per year.

According to the U.S. Department of Education National Reporting System, in the 2001-2002 fiscal year, 2.78 million adults were enrolled, while in 2019-2020, 1.1 million were enrolled.  

Typically, ABE and literacy programs are federally funded through the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA), Title II of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) of 1998.

Feinberg said this federal funding goes toward communities based on the percentage of people without a high school diploma. The funding is broken into basic funding for adult education and literacy services and the Integrated English Literacy and Civics Education (IELCE) program, which supports English language learners.

However, Patterson said this funding is not enough to make sufficient impact.

“Within the last couple of years, there’s been more of an emphasis on getting additional funding,” she said. “But essentially, when you have the same amount of money, inflation [and] cost of living would imply that it’s just going to get worse and worse.”

Based on the PIAAC data, APM Research Lab took a closer look at differences in federal and state funding for two states at opposite ends of the adult literacy spectrum: Minnesota and New Mexico.

On the high end, 57% of Minnesota adults scored at or above a Level 3 literacy proficiency, followed closely by Washington (56%) and New Hampshire (55%), while on the low end, 29% of adults in New Mexico scored at or below a Level 1 proficiency, followed by California (28%) and Texas (28%).

New Mexico’s population is less than half of Minnesota’s (2.1 million compared to 5.7 million). Federal adult education funding, which is allocated based on need, is heavily tilted toward New Mexico which receives nearly three-fourths of the amount sent to Minnesota: $5.1 million compared to $6.9 million in 2021. State funding for adult education in New Mexico is only a fraction of Minnesota’s: $6.2 million in 2019-2020 program year compared to $49.8 million.

This stark difference in federal and state funding between these two states is especially visible in the breakdown of funding per adult education participant. The proportion of state aid per participant is considerably less in New Mexico than in Minnesota. For the 2019-2020 program, Minnesota’s state aid is 2.5 times greater per participant than New Mexico’s.

Over the last five years, Minnesota state funding has averaged about $48 million and experienced a 6.3% increase. Likewise, state aid per participant has increased, the largest jump from 2019-2020 to 2020-2021. These increases have come despite a decrease in combined ABE/ESL participants. There was a 32% drop in participants from 2019-2020 to 2020-2021 and a 49% increase in state aid per participant.

Comparatively, New Mexico dedicates much less state funding than Minnesota for the number of ABE/ESL participants. Even with a notable 20% increase in funding from four years earlier, New Mexico’s state funding of $655 per participant during the 2019-20 school year was only 40% of that provided by the state of Minnesota.

Assuming that Minnesota’s higher adult education funding can be directly tied to the state’s higher literacy rates, the funding may be well worth it. For example, a recent Gallup study for the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy concluded that low adult literacy is costing the U.S. $2.2 trillion annually. By getting every adult to a Level 3 proficiency, this economic loss could be transformed into economic gain.

Feinberg said this “crisis” of low adult literacy is not a crisis at all. Instead, it is an intergenerational cycle that “affects society in every possible way.”

“I think that really is the key point,” she said. “How do we break this intergenerational cycle of low literacy, which leads to poverty?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: