Powering the Global Education Conversation: About edCircuit

Four Ways Literacy Explains Everything

Photo credit: Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education

Adult literacy is often overlooked, but it’s a social issue that helps to explain issues of intergenerational poverty, outcomes for youth, and the global divide between rich and poor.

by Austin Dickson

Consider these consequences of adult illiteracy:

It’s a Root Cause of Poverty.As of 2014, there were 45 million Americans living in poverty. Of those individuals, 75% of adults were low literate. It can be clearly stated that if you’re poor, you’re not necessarily low literate, but if you’re low literate, you’re very likely to be poor. Those with even a high school diploma earn nearly twice as much income over their lifetime than those without. Those of us who work in literacy organizations see our work as one broad poverty-fighting effort. Our organization, Literacy Action, focuses on improving the lives of individuals throughout the Atlanta region and the Southeastern U.S.

It’s Cyclical. The educational level of a mother is the most indicative variable in predicting a child’s educational outcomes. Low literate women are four times more likely to have children before turning 19. About 90% of students who come to our center are parents, so we work hard not just to put books in their hands, but teach and empower them to read to their children, create a learning environment at home, and connect with their children’s schools.

It’s Correlated with Corrections. In the U.S. prison population – which is the highest prison population in the world – nearly 75% of state inmates don’t have a high school diploma. Correspondingly, high school dropout rates from African American and Hispanic males are disproportionately higher than Whites and Asians; the prison population also reflects this disparity. The more adults that enter Literacy Action classrooms mean there are fewer adults that we’ll see caught in the revolving door of the justice system.

It Creates Global Economic and Gender Gaps. The 10 countries with the highest (over 50%) non-literacy rates – South Sudan, Mali, Afghanistan, Niger, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Chad, Burkina Faso, Senegal, and Benin – have a combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $114 billion annually. This economic output is equivalent to the economy of Columbus, Ohio. Literacy is the bedrock of economic development in our world. Sadly, more than two-thirds of the world’s 1.1 billion adults who are non-literate are female. Though Literacy Action focuses on the Atlanta area – not the world – we have hosted senior government officials from other countries to take our program models and implement them in some of the most desperate areas of our planet.

If you’d like to learn more about Literacy Action, low literacy issues in the American South, or how we help, please visit www.literacyaction.org.

Austin HeadshotAustin Dickson is the Executive Director of Literacy Action in Atlanta, the largest adult literacy nonprofit in the Southeast. Serving more than 1,200 students per year, Literacy Action is a grassroots driver of economic development and provides various levels of educational services to advance adults towards employment, citizenship, better wages, and post-secondary education. Austin has also taught philosophy at Clayton State University since 2008. He can be reached at @AustinDickson17 on



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