17 Devastating Consequences of Illiteracy: A Data-Driven Analysis

Consequences of Illiteracy

I spent the last several months looking at literacy statistics in America. This is a 4-part series that explains the consequences of illiteracy.

The Far-Reaching Consequences of Illiteracy: A Data-Driven Analysis

What Are the Consequences of Illiteracy In America?

The consequences of illiteracy are far-reaching. Studies show that 43% of adults with Level 1 literacy skills live in poverty. This staggering statistic highlights how limited access to education and literacy resources directly contribute to economic disadvantage. Illiterate individuals often struggle to secure stable employment or advance their careers, leading to financial instability and a lack of opportunities for upward social mobility.

Why Study the Consequences of Illiteracy?

Why Study Consequences of Illiteracy?

I currently teach at a continuation high school. I see many students coming of age with rudimentary literacy skills. I started this journey to help better understand what happens to my students once they leave the classroom.

Originally, I wanted to study the consequences of illiteracy to have some statistics available for my students. I want them to understand why they needed to focus on reading. As I continued to research various data sources however, I learned the statistics were worse than I originally thought.

This data-driven analysis aims to explore the wide-ranging consequences of illiteracy, shedding light on its correlation with poverty, crime rates, and health issues. By understanding the magnitude of these consequences, we can better comprehend the urgency of addressing literacy challenges and implementing effective solutions.

Please understand, I do not mean this in any way to be a judgement on our illiterate population. I think, as a society, we are responsible for illiteracy in our country. As a teacher, I imagine people as children who struggled to read and never got help. The consequences of illiteracy fall on us to repair.

Often times, the illiterate population are also part of the vulnerable populations in society. Instead, I want to highlight the importance of teaching people to read – especially children, if we want them to be able to break the cycle.

Consequences of Illiteracy: Key Data Points

Key Data Points:

Illiteracy and Poverty

  • 43% of adults at Level 1 literacy skills live in poverty, compared to only 4% at Level 5.
  • 3 out of 4 food stamp recipients perform in the lowest two literacy levels.
  • 90% of welfare recipients are high school dropouts.

Illiteracy and Crime

  • 85% of juveniles who interact with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate.
  • More than 60% of all prison inmates are functionally illiterate.
  • Inmates who receive literacy help have a 16% chance of returning to prison, compared to 70% who receive no help.
  • The Department of Justice states that the link between academic failure and crime is closely related to reading failure.
  • Over 70% of inmates in America’s prisons cannot read above a fourth-grade level.

Illiteracy and Health

  • Low literacy costs $73 million per year in direct health care costs.

Illiteracy and Social Mobility

  • 16 to 19-year-old girls at the poverty level with below-average skills are six times more likely to have out-of-wedlock children.

Global Illiteracy

  • Nearly a billion people entering the 21st century are unable to read a book or sign their names; two-thirds of them are women.

Economic Impact

  • Low levels of literacy cost the U.S. up to $2.2 trillion per year.

Consequences of Illiteracy: Poverty

Consequences of Illiteracy: Poverty

One of the major consequences of illiteracy is the high probability of poverty. Illiteracy and poverty share a strong correlation, with 43% of adults at Level 1 literacy skills living in poverty. The inability to read and write effectively limits individuals’ access to education, job opportunities, and economic advancement. Without adequate literacy skills, individuals struggle to find stable employment that pays a living wage, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

1 Difficulty Finding Employment

The consequences of illiteracy reach into employment, with illiterate individuals having limited job prospects. Many jobs require basic reading and writing abilities, such as filling out job applications, understanding work-related instructions, or communicating effectively with colleagues and clients. Individuals lacking these fundamental skills often end up in low-paying jobs or are unable to secure employment altogether.

2 Limited Access to Higher Education

Moreover, illiterate individuals face challenges in accessing higher education and vocational training programs. Higher education has been proven to be a key pathway out of poverty. However, without the ability to read textbooks or comprehend lectures, illiterate individuals are excluded from pursuing further education or acquiring specialized skills that could lead to better-paying jobs.

3 Limited Financial Management Ability

The consequences of illiteracy impact financial management and economic decision-making. Without the ability to understand financial documents or navigate complex systems like banking or investments, illiterate individuals may fall prey to scams or make poor financial choices. This can further exacerbate their financial instability and perpetuate the cycle of poverty.

4 Higher Dependence on Social Welfare Programs

In addition, the consequences of illiteracy extend beyond individual circumstances; they also have broader implications for society as a whole. The high prevalence of illiteracy contributes to increased reliance on social welfare programs and strains public resources. Moreover, it hinders economic growth by limiting productivity and innovation potential.

Consequences of Illiteracy: Potential Legal Trouble

Consequences of Illiteracy: Legal Trouble

Unfortunately, the consequences of illiteracy for many people include legal trouble. Illiteracy and crime have a strong correlation, with studies showing that 85% of juveniles in the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate. This alarming statistic highlights the profound impact that low literacy rates can have on an individual’s likelihood of engaging in criminal activities. There are several reasons for this.

5 Limited Opportunities

One of the key factors contributing to this link is the limited opportunities available to individuals with low literacy skills. Consequences of illiteracy lead to limited educational attainment and reduced job prospects, pushing individuals towards illegal activities as a means of survival.

Without the ability to read or write effectively, it becomes challenging for individuals to secure stable employment and support themselves financially. As a result, they may turn to criminal behavior as a way to meet their basic needs.

6 Inability to Understand Legal Rights

Moreover, consequences of illiteracy also contribute to a lack of understanding of legal rights and responsibilities. Individuals with low literacy skills may struggle to comprehend important legal documents or navigate complex legal processes. This puts people at a disadvantage when faced with legal issues, increasing their vulnerability to becoming involved in criminal activities or being exploited by others.

7 Generational Poverty and Legal Trouble

Additionally, there is evidence suggesting that the consequences of illiteracy can perpetuate a cycle of crime across generations. Children growing up in households with parents who have low literacy skills are more likely to experience poverty and engage in delinquent behaviors themselves.

The lack of parental guidance and support due to illiteracy can lead these children down a path towards criminal involvement.

Addressing the consequences of illiteracy is crucial in breaking this cycle and reducing crime rates. By providing accessible literacy programs and resources, we can empower individuals with the necessary skills to make positive choices and lead productive lives. Investing in education and promoting literacy not only benefits individuals but also contributes to safer communities overall.

Consequences of Illiteracy: Poor Health

Consequences of Illiteracy: Poor Health

Poor health is one of the less obvious consequences of illiteracy. One alarming area where illiteracy takes a toll is on public health. The impact of low literacy on health outcomes is profound and should not be underestimated.

Research has shown that low literacy costs the United States a staggering $73 million per year in direct healthcare costs alone. Individuals with limited reading and writing skills often struggle to understand medical instructions, leading to medication errors, missed appointments, and inadequate self-care. This lack of health literacy can have serious consequences for both individuals and society as a whole.

8 Less Understanding of Health

When individuals are unable to comprehend important health information, they are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors and make poor lifestyle choices. For example, they may have difficulty understanding nutrition labels or following dietary guidelines, leading to higher rates of obesity and related chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

9 Fewer Regular Check-ups and Screenings

Moreover, low health literacy is associated with lower rates of preventive care utilization. Individuals who struggle with reading may be less likely to seek regular check-ups or screenings for diseases like cancer or hypertension. Many people working the lowest paying jobs often have little or no health insurance to cover medical costs. As a result, these conditions often go undiagnosed until they reach advanced stages, leading to poorer treatment outcomes and higher healthcare costs.

10 Potential Societal Consequences

The consequences of low literacy on health extend beyond individual well-being; they also impact public health on a larger scale. When large segments of the population lack basic literacy skills, it becomes more challenging for public health campaigns to effectively communicate important messages about disease prevention and healthy behaviors. This can hinder efforts to control outbreaks or address pressing public health concerns.

Consequences of Illiteracy: Social Mobility Challenges

Consequences of Illiteracy: Social Mobility Challenges

Social mobility is a key indicator of a society’s overall well-being and equality. Unfortunately, illiteracy poses significant challenges to social mobility, particularly for young girls living in poverty with below-average literacy skills.

Research has shown that these girls are six times more likely to have out-of-wedlock children compared to their peers with higher literacy levels. Again, this is not a judgement on single mothers, but when young girls have children they are often in less stable living conditions. As a result, women are often victims of abuse.

11 Lower Income Potential & Fewer Opportunities for Advancement

The link between illiteracy and social mobility can be attributed to several factors. Firstly, limited reading and writing skills restrict educational opportunities for individuals. Without the ability to comprehend complex texts or express oneself effectively through writing, it becomes increasingly difficult to pursue higher education or gain access to better job prospects.

12 Lack of Foundational Skills Often Hinders Decision-making Skills

Moreover, illiteracy hampers critical thinking and problem-solving abilities, which are essential for personal growth and advancement. These cognitive skills are developed through reading and practicing literacy-related activities. When individuals lack these foundational skills, they may struggle to navigate the challenges of daily life or make informed decisions about their future.

13 Generational Cycles of Illiteracy

Furthermore, the consequences of limited literacy skills extend beyond individual lives and impact future generations as well. Children born to mothers with low literacy levels often face similar challenges themselves due to a lack of educational support at home. This perpetuates a cycle of limited opportunities and restricted social mobility within families.

By recognizing the far-reaching consequences of illiteracy on social mobility, we can work towards creating a more equitable society where everyone has equal opportunities for success. Empowering individuals with strong literacy skills not only enhances their own lives but also contributes to the overall progress and prosperity of communities as a whole. Through concerted efforts and collaborative initiatives, we can break the cycle of limited social mobility caused by illiteracy and pave the way for a brighter future.

Economic Consequences of Illiteracy

Consequences of Illiteracy: Economic Consequences

The financial consequences of illiteracy have a staggering economic impact on the United States, costing the nation up to $2.2 trillion per year. This immense financial burden is a result of various factors that stem from illiteracy.

Again, I do not think a person’s worth is determined by their ability to produce, but I understand the importance of being able to earn a living and contribute in a meaningful way to society.

14 Higher Rates of Unemployment/Underemployment

As I mentioned earlier in the article, one of the consequences of illiteracy is less employability. Individuals with low literacy skills are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed. They often struggle to find stable and well-paying jobs, leading to reduced income and increased dependence on government assistance programs. As a consequence, this places an additional strain on the economy and keep families in perpetual poverty.

15 Decreased Productivity

Moreover, low literacy levels also contribute to decreased productivity in the workforce. Individuals who lack basic reading and writing skills face challenges in performing tasks that require comprehension and communication. They may need more explanation or take too much time to learn skills necessary to complete a job. This can lead to inefficiencies in the workplace, reduced output, and ultimately lower economic growth.

16 Engaging in Unhealthy Behaviors

Furthermore, the cost of healthcare is significantly impacted by low literacy rates. Studies have shown that individuals with limited literacy skills are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors and have difficulty understanding medical instructions or managing their own health conditions. As a result, they are more prone to chronic illnesses and require more frequent hospital visits, leading to increased healthcare costs for both individuals and society as a whole.

17 Hindered Innovation

In addition to these direct economic consequences, low literacy levels also hinder innovation and technological advancement. One of the consequences of illiteracy for our country is that illiterate individuals are less likely to engage in lifelong learning or pursue higher education opportunities. This limits their ability to adapt to rapidly changing industries and acquire new skills necessary for employment in modern sectors such as technology or engineering.

The economic impact of low literacy extends beyond national borders as well. The global illiteracy crisis affects nearly a billion people entering the 21st century who are unable to read a book or sign their names. This impedes social progress and economic development in many countries, perpetuating cycles of poverty and hindering international cooperation.

Global Illiteracy Crisis

Consequences of Illiteracy: Global look

The global illiteracy crisis is a pressing issue that affects nearly a billion people entering the 21st century. Shockingly, these individuals are unable to read a book or even sign their names. This lack of basic literacy skills has far-reaching consequences for both individuals and societies as a whole.

Illiteracy perpetuates a cycle of poverty, making it difficult for individuals to escape economic hardship. According to research, 43% of adults with Level 1 literacy skills live in poverty. Without the ability to read or write effectively, individuals struggle to access job opportunities that could lift them out of poverty. This lack of economic stability further exacerbates social inequality and hinders social mobility.

Moreover, the correlation between illiteracy and crime rates cannot be ignored. Studies have shown that 85% of juveniles in the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate. Illiteracy increases the likelihood of engaging in criminal activities as individuals may resort to illegal means for survival when they lack education and employment prospects.

Consequences of Illiteracy: Global Impact

In addition to its impact on poverty and crime rates, illiteracy also has severe health consequences. Low literacy levels cost the U.S. an estimated $73 million per year in direct healthcare costs alone. Individuals with limited reading abilities struggle to understand medical instructions, leading to poor health outcomes and increased healthcare utilization.

The global illiteracy crisis calls for urgent action and investment in educational initiatives that prioritize literacy development. By addressing this issue head-on, we can break the cycle of poverty, reduce crime rates, improve health outcomes, and promote social mobility.

It is evident that low literacy levels have profound economic implications as well. The United States alone incurs up to $2.2 trillion per year due to low levels of literacy. This staggering figure highlights the immense cost society pays when individuals lack basic reading and writing skills. It emphasizes the need for comprehensive literacy programs that equip people with essential tools for success in today’s knowledge-based economy.

Conclusion: The Consequences of Illiteracy

Consequences of Illiteracy: Reading

In conclusion, the data-driven analysis presented in this blog post highlights the far-reaching consequences of illiteracy. It is evident that illiteracy has a profound impact on various aspects of society, including poverty, crime rates, health issues, social mobility, and economic stability.

Low literacy levels cost the U.S. up to $2.2 trillion per year. Individuals with limited reading and writing abilities face significant barriers in finding employment opportunities that pay a livable wage. The statistics show that those who are functionally illiterate are more likely to engage in criminal activities or become entangled in the justice system. Individuals with poor literacy skills struggle to understand medical instructions or access vital health information, leading to compromised health outcomes. Moreover, the global illiteracy crisis demands urgent attention. Nearly a billion people entering the 21st century lack basic reading and writing skills.

In light of these findings, it is crucial for governments, educational institutions, and communities to prioritize literacy initiatives and invest resources into improving literacy rates worldwide. By doing so, we can break the cycle of poverty, reduce crime rates, improve public health outcomes, promote social mobility, and unlock economic potential. Together, we can create a more equitable and prosperous future for all.

If you would like read more on this topic, check out this post on Literacy and High School Drop Out Rates. Also, here are some resources to help readers in your home/class check out these posts: Is Manga Literature?

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Valerie de la Rosa


I am an educator with almost 15 years of experience teaching in Japan, Hawaii, and in Los Angeles. My goal is to change education and the way we view literacy instruction in America.

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