prosperous and educated country in the world, the United States still faces the problem of illiteracy as millions of workers are at least functionally illiterate, meaning they may be able to read enough to get through life but not enough to participate fully. Illiteracy is an expensive proposition, costing American business something in the order of $60 billion a year in lost productivity ("America's $60 Billion Problem," 2001, 51). The U.S. Department of Labor estimate is even higher, suggesting that illiteracy costs American businesses "about $225 billion a year in lost productivity" ("Illiteracy at work: Top executives are reluctant to admit that some of their workers have trouble reading this sentence," 1996, 14). A more educated workforce is better able to take advantage of training opportunities, opportunities for advancement, and otherwise fulfill the needs of American business. There are a number of reasons why illiteracy on this level persists, from poor schools and missed opportunities to uncorrected vision problems. There are also a number of programs intended to correct these problems and improve the literacy rate, some of them administered by businesses aware of the problem and eager to improve their own workforce, and others under the administration of the government.
The scope of the problem has been revealed in several surveys of the adult workforce in recent years. A strict definition of illiteracy wa last included in information from the U.S. Census Bureau in 1979 when it was found that 0.6% of Americans over the age of 14 could not read or write a simple message in any language; that percentage means about 822,000 persons. The problem is revealed to be even greater by the 1993 National Adult Literacy Survey because it used a broader definition for "low literacy," a term "which measures separately prose, document, and quantitative literacy" ("Illiteracy and low literacy in the United States," 1996, 286). Under this definition, 21% of Americans over the age of 16 perform no better than the lowest five levels of prose literacy in English, and that translates to approximately 40 million people. The levels are clearly defined. Tasks at the Level 1 "require readers to locate single pieces of information in simple texts" ("Illiteracy and low literacy in the United States," 1996, 286). At Level 2, readers are expected to locate information in texts "that include distracting information or plausible but incorrect information" ("Illiteracy and low literacy in the United States," 1996, 286). This also requires readers "to make low-level inferences, compare and contrast information, and integrate pieces of information" ("Illiteracy and low literacy in the United States," 1996, 286). At the more advanced levels from 3 through 5, readers must perform similar but more difficult tasks. According to the 1993 National Adult Literacy Survey, there are complex relationships between literacy skills and social and economic data for the population. Older people, meaning those who were not born in the United States, and members of minority groups are over-represented on Level 1. It was also found that "persons with low literacy had low levels of education and were less likely to vote, read the newspaper, hold a job, or have income above the poverty line than were persons at higher literacy levels" ("Illiteracy and low literacy in the United States," 1996, 286).
The most comprehensive survey of literacy ever done was released in 1993 by the U.S. Department of Education, and it showed that American workers were ill-equipped to compete globally just at a time when the global marketplace was assuming increasing importance. America's schools were contributing to the problem by graduating students who possessed only rudimentary skills, students who were barely able to read or write. Many of these students can read simple prose and add a column of figures, but they do not have the skills to make use of these abilities in everyday life. According to the study, nearly half of the country's 191 million adults cannot perform simple tasks like filling out a bank deposit slip or translating information on a table to a graph. Most of the 26,000 randomly selected respondents self-reported that they could read and write English "well" or "very well." The last major study of the issue was in 1975, and it showed that some 25 million American adults were functionally illiterate. The new survey showed that approximately 95.5 million fit into that category (Kaplan & Wingert, 1993, 44).
As if further evidence were needed, a more recent study undertaken by the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey demonstrated that American adult literacy ranks tenth out of 17 industrialized countries:
More troubling, the U.S. has the largest gap between highly and poorly educated adults, with immigrants and minorities making up the largest chunk of those at the bottom. Since both groups make up a growing share of the workforce, the U.S. will drop even further behind unless adult training and education improve sharply. Nor are U.S. schools likely to help: 16? To 25?year-olds not only underperform their foreign counterparts but also do so to a greater degree than Americans over 40 (Bernstein, 2002, 122).
Given the high costs of illiteracy to American business, it is surprising how many business leaders do not see illiteracy as a problem they need to address. Among the problems illiteracy contributes to are lower productivity, injuries, employee errors, and absenteeism. A survey by Opinion Research Corp. In 1996 shows that some 22% of companies surveyed have programs in place to combat the problem, but that also means that 78% do not ("Illiteracy at work: Top executives are reluctant to admit that some of their workers have trouble reading this sentence," 1996, 14). Awareness of the problem has been increasing, but this does not mean that solutions have also been increasing:
Executives acknowledge the problem of illiteracy, but they don't necessarily think it's their problem to fix. Eighty-two percent of those surveyed by Coors say that state and local school systems have primary responsibility to boost workers' literacy rates. Half as many say so about corporations, and sizable minorities think that the federal government and individuals themselves should be responsible for tackling the problem ("Illiteracy at work: Top executives are reluctant to admit that some of their workers have trouble reading this sentence," 1996, 14).
Illiteracy adds costs not just based on what happens in the workplace but because of other problems faced by the illiterate as well. For instance, health care costs are increased for this population. The health care system is complex enough to require enrollees to be at last functionally literate so they can follow simple instructions. Companies find that illiterate employees may have trouble complying with healthcare instructions. This can add to the deterioration of their health and so add even more to healthcare costs. It is estimated that as many as 15 million workers covered by health insurance are functionally illiterate. The issue is becoming more apparent in an era where the old, paternalistic model of healthcare is giving way to a consumer model in which the consumer is responsible for much of his or her own care:
In place of paternalistic medicine, patients are expected to take charge of their own care, following complex testing and injection schedules for diabetes, for instance, or mastering and tracking the results of various therapies for asthma. Yet health literacy activists recount sad, and sometimes tragic, stories of people who can't follow even simple instructions (Ziegler, 1998, 53).
While many businesses have ignored the problem or have claimed that it is not their responsibility, in truth those companies that do address the problem have a competitive advantage which will set them apart in the future:
Companies that support literacy are not nicer employers, educators say, but smarter ones. As the labor force grows more diverse, these enlightened companies will be at the head of the pack 10 years from now (Powers, 1991, 31).
Educators have a role to play as well, and many educators have been warning of the scope of this problem for some time and trying to get business to develop programs to combat it. Dr. Lester Thurow, dean of the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, notes,
The problem is not just finding work for the functional illiterate in a high-tech scientific society... But how society itself is to survive competitively if so much of its workforce cannot effectively contribute" ("Illiteracy rate among U.S. workers bodes ill for future, educator warns," 1991, 15)
He also notes that less than one percent of the Japanese labor force is functionally illiterate, a far different picture from what surveys show about the American labor force. American students are also functionally illiterate in other ways, as it has been found that "American eighth graders rank in the bottom tenth internationally in five areas in which math skills were tested" ("Illiteracy rate among U.S. workers bodes ill for future, educator warns," 1991, 15).
Thurow is correct that it is not merely a matter of finding jobs for people who cannot read…