A Look At Illiteracy: Its Causes, Effects, and How We Promote Literacy in the Community

Illiteracy is a broader social issue than it may seem at first glance. In actuality, literacy is deeply entangled with economics, politics, personal development, and even mortality. Who knew that something so simple as the ability to read could have such as extensive impact on the individual and society?

Well, literacy is more than the ability to read. It encompasses the ability to understand what is read, compare and contrast information, make interpretations, and communicate in a “digital, text-mediated, information-rich and fast-changing world.”1 It’s not just reading stories and school assignments; it’s processing the instructions on one’s medication, understanding nutrition labeling, assisting one’s children with their homework, pursuing job listings, and the many other constant and ordinary ways people must process written information to navigate the world around them2. Literacy is paramount to a prosperous society and to the success and well being of individuals.

People lacking education or proficient reading skills are more at risk for health complications. Partially, this arises from the challenges of educating oneself on health-related topics when one cannot read. According to a 2010 study, “literate woman are three times more likely than illiterate woman to know that a person in seemingly good health can be infected with HIV, and four times as likely to know how to protect themselves from AIDS.”3 Literate people are better equipped to protect themselves from this debilitating and once widespread disease than their illiterate peers, who do not have the same access to written information.

The same phenomenon is observed in the infant mortality rate and its relation to the mother’s education level. According to the above-mentioned study, “infant mortality decreases [an estimated] 9% for every year of education attained” by the child’s mother.3 The less educated the mother is, the more likely the child is to die young. To solidify this more, Japan, a country with a whopping 99% literacy rate, has the lowest infant mortality rate in the world.4 Education has even been found to affect a mother’s opinion on medical practices such as immunization, as “educated mother are 50% more likely to immunize their children than mothers with no to little schooling,”4 an increasingly relevant topic—and potential threat to children’s safety—in today’s world.

Uneducated and illiterate people have limited access to health information. Literate people report higher rates of life satisfaction compared to their illiterate peers, and older adults who “read, understand, and use health and medical information” proficiently report being happier than those with insufficient reading skills.4 This is because those who can access written information online and elsewhere can learn about their health and make more informed decisions to maximize their personal well being.

Literacy also has a significant impact on the community, country, and even the world at large. Approximately 9% of the global population is illiterate, which is more than 770 million people! Missed economic opportunities arise from this vast quantity, with “the cost of illiteracy in the global economy…estimated at $1.19 trillion USD.”5 High rates of illiteracy, for example, prevent many countries from leveraging the internet for economic gain through resources such as Google or news outlets, as well as limiting employment opportunities, increasing crime, and fueling dependence on social welfare and charity, all factors that accompany poverty and economic hardship. Literacy allows more citizens to participate in the economy and take advantage of all the resources available to them. If every child in the world learned to read, there would be 171 million fewer people living in poverty!5

Additionally, literate individuals are more likely to engage with their community. Literate people are more likely to participate in civic activities such as voting, and they are better able to research political candidates and make informed decisions at the polls. Further, educated people are more likely to express tolerant and democratic views, which “has the potential to benefit disadvantaged ethnic groups” and other minority groups through the promotion of more liberal ideals.6 In this way, literacy has the potential to sway a country’s political makeup, making it a more accepting, equal, and civically engaged nation.

And, believe it or not, America needs this. Illiteracy is not a third world problem. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about one in five (about 21%), or approximately 43 million Americans, are unable to complete tasks that “require comparing and contrasting information, paraphrasing, or making low-level inferences”7 or, in other words, read above the lowest literacy level.

Chicago’s literacy rate is slightly lower than the national average, with about 30% of adults lacking basic reading skills.8

So, where does this come from? Illiteracy stems from a variety of causes with poverty at the forefront. Children who live in “persistent poverty for their first seven years have cognitive development scores on average 20 per cent below” children who do not grow up in poverty.9 Stress, hunger, lack of resources, underfunded schools, and other accompanying factors complicate impoverished young people’s ability to receive an education on par with their privileged peers.9 And the problem is here, among our neighbors and friends. In 2015, “approximately half the residents in Chicago were considered low income or in poverty”.10 That’s 50% of Chicago residents struggling to make ends meet, pay the bills, put food on the table, and, of course, successfully learn and teach their children to read.

Illiteracy tends to run in families, phenomenon known as intergenerational transmission of illiteracy. Absent or uneducated parents cannot adequately assist their children with schooling the same way a present, educated parent could.11 Even something as simple as a lack of books in one’s household can impede one’s ability to learn to read.

The best way to learn to read is to read, of course. Various data suggests that the number of books in a child’s household impacts their success later in life. A 2018 study found that “teenagers in a home with almost no books went on to have below average literacy and numeracy level…[while] having approximately 80 books in adolescent home libraries raised levels to the average.”12 80 books sounds like a lot just to achieve an “average” reading level. However, a similar study found that “having as few as 20 books in the home has a significant impact on a child’s ascent to a higher level of education,” even asserting that “the presence of books in the home has a greater influence on a child’s level of education than does the parent’s income, nationality, or level of education.”13 In this case, books—even more so than a child’s parents—can influence them to achieve a higher level of education, promoting success in all areas and potentially serving as their escape from the cycle of poverty, poor health, political ignorance, and all the other detriments of illiteracy and a lack of education.

Therefore, Our Future Reads has a mission to build personal libraries, connecting individuals, children, and their families with the books they need to succeed. To date, OFR has donated about 1,200 books and has a huge collection of about 7,000 to 10,000 books waiting in its warehouse to be shipped to people and programs across the city. OFR strives specifically to connect people with books they’ll love, tailoring donations to the unique interests of the recipient. In this way, OFR goes above and beyond by not only providing books to those who might otherwise be unable to afford or access them, but also by encouraging a love of reading and a life of learning. One book at a time, OFR is building a community of literate, educated, productive, engaged citizens, healthy and happy individuals, and capable employees for the betterment of the place many call home.

  1. UNESCO, “Literacy.”
  2. Seeds of Literacy, “The Importance of Adult Literacy,” Sept. 1, 2015.
  3. Plan International, “The Importance of Education: How Literacy Improves Lives,” March 31, 2017.
  4. Literacy Worldwide, “The Benefits of Literacy.”
  5. Truman Center, “Illiteracy Costs the Global Economy $1 Trillion.”
  6. Read Educational Trust, “Benefits of Literacy.”
  7. U.S. Department of Education, “Adult Literacy in the United States,” July 2019.
  8. Entries Toward a Collaborative Atlas of Chicago, “Literacy in Chicago,” Dec. 23, 2019.
  9. Child Poverty Action Group, “The Effects of Poverty.”
  10. Aurora University, “Urban Poverty in Chicago,” Sept. 13, 2017.
  11. Literacy Foundation, “Causes of Illiteracy.”
  12. Chicago Literacy Alliance, “Why We’re Here.”
  13. Education World, “The More Books at Home, the Higher the Child’s Education.”

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