Letter From America: Illiterate America

The young man thrust a paper at me, squinting into the sun. "Hey, man, can you tell me where this is?" I was a visitor to Detroit myself, but one glance at the scribbled address told me the answer to his question. I pointed at the street sign barely 15 feet away. "It's right there," I said. "Can't you see the sign?"

He looked sheepishly at me, pulled the paper back and headed toward the corner. And then it hit me. The reason he had had to ask me, a stranger, was not because he hadn't seen the sign. It was because he couldn't read it.

He was not alone. An astonishing 47 percent of Detroiters, nearly one out of two adults in this predominantly black city, are functionally illiterate. (By way of comparison, the figure for Vietnam is 6.7 percent and 1.7 percent for Croatia.) Functional illiteracy relates to the inability of an individual to use reading, writing and computational skills in everyday life: filling out a job application, reading traffic signs, figuring out an election ballot, reading a newspaper, understanding a bus schedule or a product label--or an address on a sheet of paper. In the richest country on earth, 23 percent of adult Americans--44 million men and women--cannot do these things.

If anything, the situation is worse than those statistics suggest, because 50 million more Americans cannot read or comprehend above an eighth-grade level. To appreciate what that means: you need ninth-grade comprehension to understand the instructions for an antidote on an ordinary can of cockroach poison in your kitchen, 10th grade to follow a federal income-tax return, 12th-grade competence to read a life-insurance form. All told, a staggering percentage of America's adults are, in effect, unequipped for life in a modern society.

It's startling enough for foreigners to realize there is such a thing as American illiteracy. More poignant is that, unlike in the developing world, where illiteracy is predominantly a rural problem, in the United States it occurs overwhelmingly in the inner cities, with a heavy concentration among the poor and those dependent on welfare. I was in Detroit to address a conference on the crisis in America's cities, and I had stepped out onto the street to get some fresh air and use my cell phone. In the young man in front of me I saw the problem firsthand. Nearly half of Detroit's citizens between the ages of 16 and 60, I was told, are jobless and not seeking work. Why? It's a fair guess that most of them do not have the required literacy skills to apply for available jobs, or even to be trained for them.

Kevin, an outspoken civic worker I met, told me that illiteracy and unemployment go hand in hand: 70 percent of functionally illiterate adults have no job or only a part-time job. Those who are employed have it tough. Illiterate adults work an average of 19 weeks a year, compared with 44 weeks a year for literates. Workers without a high-school degree earn four times less than those with a college degree. And they often can't cope at work. Business losses attributable to literacy deficiencies cost the United States tens of billions of dollars every year in low productivity, industrial accidents, lawsuits and poor product quality.

What's worse, the standards and requirements for literacy have increased in recent years, as computerization has taken over the world. "You've got mail" may be the defining slogan of our age, but it excludes those who can't decipher their mail, electronic or otherwise. In a world where you can tell the rich from the poor by their Internet connections, the poverty line trips over the high-speed-digital line. The portal to the computer age is the keyboard--but too many Americans literally cannot read the keys.

The cost in terms of lost human potential is devastating. Consider crime. Sixty percent of all juvenile offenders have illiteracy problems; seven out of 10 adult prisoners have low literacy levels, and the current prison population of 2 million represents a dramatic concentration of illiterate Americans. As for that young man in Detroit, he will always have to rely on others for vital information to lead his life; he will always be vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by those who wield that one vital skill he doesn't have. And this in the world's oldest and most powerful democracy, whose citizenry make (or acquiesce in) decisions that affect the rest of the world.

I ran after the young man and caught up with him at the light. "Here, let me help," I said, taking the paper from him and reading the address aloud. "That should be that building over there," I said, pointing at a building half a block away, its name visible in large lettering above the entrance. He looked at me in gratitude, but I just felt helpless. I wished I had a leaflet on me for an adult remedial-education program, but he wouldn't be able to read that either.

"Thanks, man," he said, a delighted look in his eyes. He headed off--this time, at least, in the right direction.