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

According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than half of U.S. adults aged 16 to 74 years old (54% or 130 million people) lack proficiency in literacy, reading below the equivalent of a sixth grade level. Literacy is linked to better health, higher levels of civic engagement and higher earnings in the labor market. This new research by Gallup, on behalf of the Barbara Bush Foundation, quantifies the massive gains in GDP growth within the U.S. at the state, county and metropolitan levels that could result from improving 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,” said 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.”

Low literacy prevents millions of adults from fully engaging in society as parents, workers and citizens, lying at the core of multigenerational cycles of poverty, poor health and low educational attainment. Nationwide, low-literate adults struggle to earn a living wage, participate in the democratic process, and manage their family’s health and finances simply because they lack the ability to read, write and comprehend.

The Barbara Bush Foundation partnered with Dr. Jonathan Rothwell, Gallup’s principal economist, to conduct this groundbreaking study. Rothwell also serves as a visiting scholar at the George Washington Institute of Public Policy and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, as well as a New York Times contributor and the author of “A Republic of Equals: A Manifesto for a Just Society.”

“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,” said Rothwell. “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.

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