Primer – Adult Literacy in the U.S.

WARNING: This piece is several of years out of date. The last significant revision was done just after the Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) results were released, in the fall of 2013. It’s useful as a snapshot of where we were at that time, and the data is still accurate, so we’re leaving it up for now. – September 2016

This is not an attempt to provide anything close to a complete, authoritative review of adult literacy in the U.S., but we thought a few basic facts—with some links to additional sources of information sprinkled in—may be of help to those reading this blog who are unfamiliar with the issue. (Note: the Workforce Investment Act, cited below, has recently been reauthorized/updated.)

What Is Adult Literacy?

The Workforce Investment Act of 1998 (see below) defines literacy as “an individual’s ability to read, write, and speak in English, compute, and solve problems, at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job, in the family of the individual, and in society.” 

Adult Literacy in the U.S.

How many adults in the U.S. lack basic literacy skills? The short answer: about 36 million people.

Here’s the longer answer. Last November, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released results from its Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), and it estimated that one in six American adults lack basic literacy and numeracy skills, which is roughly 36 million people. What’s worse, nearly one in three have poor numeracy (math) skills.

Moreover, the U.S. ranks poorly against other countries in these basic skills. In a followup report titled “Time for the U.S. to Reskill? What the Survey of Adult Skills Says,” the OECD noted that the U.S. lags behind the international average for basic skills in not only literacy and numeracy, but also “problem solving in technology-rich environments” (defined as “using digital technology, communication tools and networks to acquire and evaluate information, communicate with others and perform practical tasks”).

A previous study from 2003, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), estimated that 30 million American adults—14% of the country’s adult population—had below basic literacy skills, and that an additional 63 million adults had just a basic, bare-bones level of literacy proficiency. For the last decade, most people in the field have included both those populations as part of the target population for adult education (which is reasonable—those with just basic skills are not really at a level most Americans would consider adequately skilled) but it was the 30 million figure that represented the population lacking what most would consider the most rudimentary literacy skills.

Unlike the PIAAC study, the NAAL also provided state and county estimates.

Eventually, I think you’ll start to see the PIAAC estimate (36 million) as the figure used to describe the state of American literacy, but I’m sure we will continue to see articles referring to 30 million (or the more inflated 93 million) low literate adults for some time.

What Do We Know About Low-Skilled Adults?

I’ve found that many people are under the impression that virtually all individuals with low literacy must be unemployed and/or without a high school diploma, but that’s not the case. The NAAL study cited above, for example, found that 45% of adults with a high school diploma/GED or above performed at the below basic level. More recently, the PIAAC study noted that the U.S. had one of the smallest proportions of adults with less than high school education, and one of the largest with more than high school.

Moreover, most low-skilled adults are employed. The NAAL estimated that about 35% of those performing at the below basic level had a full-time job. The PIAAC study estimated that as many as 63% of low-skilled adults are in some form of employment (though they may be underemployed)—slightly higher than in most other countries they surveyed. On the other hand, one in ten low-skilled adults are unemployed (not in employment but actively searching)—which is a higher percentage than in most other countries.

In my experience, more adult education students are employed than not. That is not to suggest that low literacy does not generally have an adverse impact on employment prospects or earnings. Low-skilled adults are much less likely to be able to take advantage of education and training that would provide them with more marketable skills.

Adult Education Programs in the U.S.

The phrase “adult literacy programs” is sometimes used interchangeably with the term “adult education programs,” but adult education has a slightly broader meaning. That is, the adult education field includes not just adult literacy programs, but programs that help adults of varying levels of literacy proficiency improve their basic academic skills (including math); and/or help non-native English speakers learn English; and/or help those without a high school diploma obtain a high school level credential. Examples include: adult basic education (ABE) for adults who need help with basic reading, writing, or math skills; GED preparation; External Diploma Programs (EDP), an alternative high school diploma credential; English as a Second Language (ESL); family literacy programs, and programs that integrate adult literacy instruction with employment training.  (What it generally doesn’t mean, in this context, is adult continuing education, like the pottery class offered at your local YMCA.) GED, EDP, and other instructional programs that are focused on helping higher level learners earn a high school diploma or equivalent are often grouped under the label Adult Secondary Education, or ASE.

In my experience, when people picture adult literacy programs, the image in their mind is usually a community-based ABE program. ABE programs are also where you are more likely to find volunteer one-on-one tutoring as the predominant instructional model. But many programs (especially ESL and GED programs) employ traditional classroom-based instruction. There are other models of instruction as well—in particular, there are hybrid tutoring/classroom models, small group instruction, and, increasingly, instruction delivered via technology. In general, people enrolled in adult education programs are not full-time students.

Publicly funded adult education programs in the U.S. provide these services for free or at minimal cost to learners.

How Many Individuals Are Served by U.S. Adult Education Programs?

It’s not clear. We’re told that programs funded by the largest federal source of adult education dollars, the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA), which was enacted as Title II of the Workforce Investment Act, (WIA) currently serves around two million adult learners annually (the figure was just under two million, actually, for the 2011-12 program year). We know for sure that the demand for such programs is higher: a recently survey found that more than 160,000 people were placed on waiting lists for WIA-funded programs in 2009-2010. However, there are other sources of federal, state, and local funding that are not included in that statistic, and many programs are privately funded, so it’s a sure bet that more than two million are actually being served. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to say exactly how many, because there is no single entity that tracks the total number of people served by all programs regardless of funding source.

This fuzziness on numbers is not atypical. Unlike higher education or K-12, there is a less discernible system of adult education in the U.S., so in general, it’s difficult—if not impossible, in some cases—to obtain comprehensive data on adult education programs and participation.

However, to my knowledge, in most states, WIA-funded programs are the largest source of adult education services, so I’m fairly confident that while the system as a whole may be serving a lot more people, (maybe—and this is just a guess—a few hundred thousand more, annually), we’re still only serving a very small percentage of those who might benefit from such programs. Moreover, that waiting list number (which, again, if we had data from programs not funded by WIA, would surely be even higher) indicates that we are not even serving all of those who are actively seeking help. (You might ask: why wouldn’t any adult struggling with literacy be actively seeking help? There are many possible reasons. Some may have tried and given up; some may not know that such programs exist; some, unfortunately, may believe they cannot learn; some are embarrassed or ashamed to come forward; and some may not be aware or be willing to acknowledge they need help.)

The figures cited above on WIA-funded program participation and waiting lists comes from the National Council of State Directors of Adult Education (NCSDAE). State directors of adult education (there’s a list here) are the state officials responsible for managing the funds for adult education and literacy provided by WIA, and (typically) state-funded adult education initiatives as well. Another source for information on the federal investment in adult education is the U.S. Department of Education Office of Vocational and Adult Education.

An April 5th, 2013  report issued by the Congressional Research Service, “The Workforce Investment Act and the One-Stop Delivery System” serves as a useful primer to WIA generally, including Title II.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the PIAAC study found that, in general, the percentage of adults participating in adult education in the U.S. was relatively high compared to the other countries they surveyed. Nonetheless, during presentations in 2013-14 on the PIAAC, the U.S. Department of Education has noted that 18% of survey respondents with below basic skills said they they would have liked to participate in adult education, but were unable to do so, which they believe suggests a potential unmet demand for adult education services among low-skilled adults of about three million.

How Does the Federal Government Support Adult Literacy Programs?

As noted above, the largest source of federal investment in adult education and literacy is Title II of the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), which provides block grants to states to fund adult education and family literacy programs.

The bulk of those funds are distributed as grants to local adult education programs. In addition, these funds are used to support teacher training, curriculum development, and accountability measurement.

According to the latest data from OVAE, the largest groups of students served by WIA Title II are ABE students, with ESL students close behind:

Numbers served by program 2011-12

Source: Office of Vocational and Adult Education, National Reporting System

One other point about who is being served by WIA Title II: because, overall, WIA is primarily concerned with workforce training, it is often not well understood that AEFLA/Title II has a broader purpose. If you hear someone talking about adult literacy as if it is—or should be—entirely oriented around occupational training, to do so would actually be in violation of federal law, as the legislation as it written makes it clear that the purpose of adult education and literacy services under Title II are broader. Those purposes are to: “(1) assist adults to become literate and obtain the knowledge and skills necessary for employment and self-sufficiency; (2) assist adults who are parents to obtain the educational skills necessary to become full partners in the educational development of their children; and (3) assist adults in the completion of a secondary school education.” In fact, according to the latest data from OVAE, over half a million adults not currently in the labor force were served by WIA Title II programs in 2011-2012. That’s roughly 25% of the students. (Less clear is how many of those students are permanently out of the workforce—due to age, disability, etc.)

How much does the Federal Government Invest in Adult Literacy Programs?

Currently just under $600 million dollars annually. The federal appropriation for adult education and family literacy under WIA has been basically flat for a decade, and WIA itself is long overdue for reauthorization.

CEF Summary Adult Education 2013

Source: Committee for Education Funding

Moreover, if you take into account inflation, federal support for adult education has actually declined by almost 23% since 2002:

AEFLA Spending 2002-2013 - Inflation Adjustments

It is often overlooked, however, that several other federal programs authorize expenditures for adult basic education services, such as the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (UCIS) Citizenship and Integration Grant Program, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), as well as community service programs operated by the Corporation for National and Community Service. Again, these sources provide much less support for adult literacy overall than WIA, but they are not insignificant.

How Do State Governments Support Adult Literacy Programs?

State funding varies quite a bit. States have to provide a match for the WIA funding they receive, but it doesn’t have to all come out of state budgets: some states, for example, ask for WIA-funded programs to contribute to the match. In fact, a few states don’t invest any state money in adult education at all.

During the last few years, many states have cut their funding for adult education (as well as a lot of other things, of course) in the wake of the economic downturn and the resulting shortfalls in state tax revenue. Historically, the combination of state and local funding for adult education has been significantly higher than the federal share, but this is a bit misleading, as it is largely due to heavy investment by just a handful of states. (At one time, seven states—California, Florida, New York, Michigan, Illinois, Massachusetts, and North Carolina—accounted for 80% of all the state funds supporting adult education services) According to this 2012 report from CLASP, non-federal funding now makes up only a little more than half of total adult education funding in the U.S. The main takeaway being: while federal funding is shrinking, it is, more than ever, the most critical source of funding for adult education in the U.S.

Bear in mind, however, that even the best data on program funding provides us with a somewhat incomplete picture, since many programs receive a mix of federal, state, local, and philanthropic funding. For example, I don’t believe anyone has attempted to estimate total philanthropic funding for adult education in the U.S., and the federal funding analyses that I’ve read don’t take into consideration sources of funding outside of WIA.

Public Policy and Adult Literacy

One of the points of this blog is to point out ways in which increasing participation in adult education and improving adult literacy makes sense as part of a strategy to achieve other public policy goals. This is not an exhaustive list, (and I’m not pledging to keep it exhaustively updated, either), but here are a couple of examples:

  • Employment/Wage Growth. There is data suggesting that investments in adult education pays off in higher rates of employment for participating adults. In 2008-2009, for example, 181,766 adult education students entered or retained employment in the midst of a national recession. (This data comes from the National Reporting System (NRS); the NRS reports are another good source for data on federally funded adult education programs.)

Researchers have also found evidence that participation in adult education leads to significant wage gains. In one study, for example, minimum wage workers increased their wages by 18-25% within 18 months of exiting in adult education program.

I would caution that there are a lot of other political and economic factors at play that can impact employment numbers and wage growth that have nothing to do with the skills of the workers, but this research suggests that at the very least, increasing participation in adult education can be positive factor in reducing unemployment and increasing wages. Adults with low literacy would also seem to be more at risk in terms of employment/wage instability, especially during economic downturns.

  • K-12 Education. There is convincing evidence (here’s one recent example) that a parent’s educational attainment and literacy level is a critical influence on his/her child’s literacy development and success in school. It follows then that investing in adult education for poorly educated adults will produce payoffs not just for the adults, but also for their children. D.C. LEARNs has published a paper that discusses this connection in more detail.
  • Health Care. Researchers have found that persons with low-literacy skills generate higher charges for health care than do persons with better reading skills. Estimates are that the cost of low health literacy to the U.S. economy is in the range of $106 billion to $238 billion annually.

This is not by any means a complete list. The National Coalition for Literacy has more extensive information on the return on investment for adult literacy, if you are interested. One of the things we try to do on this blog is keep track of the latest examples—and focus in on the ones that we think are the most compelling.

Finally, a few additional sources of information that we refer to on a regular basis:


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