Economic study

New economic study finds US could lose $2.2 trillion a year due to low adult literacy

According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than half of U.S. adults between the ages of 16 and 74 (54% or 130 million people) lack literacy skills, reading below the equivalent of a sixth grade. year. Literacy is linked to better health, higher levels of civic engagement and higher earnings in the labor market. This new research from Gallup, on behalf of the Barbara Bush Foundation, quantifies the massive gains in U.S. GDP growth at the state, county, and metro levels that could result from improved adult literacy rates .

“America’s low literacy crisis is largely ignored, historically underfunded and woefully underresearched, despite being one of the great solvable problems of our time,” said Briton A. Robinson, President and CEO of the Barbara Bush Foundation. “We are proud to contribute to the collective knowledge base with this first-of-its-kind study, documenting the relationship between literacy, equity, and economic mobility in the United States”

Low literacy levels prevent millions of adults from fully engaging in society as parents, workers and citizens, which is at the heart of multigenerational cycles of poverty, poor health and low education . Across the country, adults with low literacy struggle to earn a living, participate in the democratic process, and manage their family’s health and finances simply because they cannot read, write, and understand.

The Barbara Bush Foundation has partnered with Dr. Jonathan Rothwell, Gallup’s senior economist, for conducting this groundbreaking study. Rothwell is also a visiting scholar at the George Washington Institute of Public Policy and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, as well as a New York Times contributor and author of “A Republic of Equals: A Manifesto for a Just Society”.

“The United States faces the long-standing challenge of high income inequality, with surprisingly large wealth and income gaps between people of different races,” Rothwell said. “In addition to these long-term challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic has weakened the economy and has come on top of a robust movement against racial injustice. Eradicating illiteracy would not solve all problems, but it would help make substantial progress in reducing long-term inequality and provide a much-needed boost to local and regional economies across the country.”

Key findings from the study include:

  • Improving adult literacy would have enormous economic benefits. Bringing all adults to the equivalent of a sixth grade reading level would generate a $2.2 trillion – or 10% of GDP – in annual income for the country.
  • Income is strongly related to literacy. The average annual income of adults who read at the equivalent of sixth grade is $63,000. This is significantly higher than for adults reading in grades three through five, who earn $48,000, and much higher than those with the lowest literacy levels, who barely earn $34,000 on average.
  • Economic gains would be high in large metropolitan areas. The largest metropolitan areas in the country, including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and dallas – would all earn 10% or just above their GDP by bringing all adults to a sixth grade reading level.

“The eradication of illiteracy would be extremely helpful under any circumstances,” Rothwell said. “Given the current economic and health challenges, the stakes are even higher to ensure that everyone can participate fully in society.”

“This research clearly shows that investing in adult literacy is absolutely essential to strengthening our country’s economy,” said Robinson.

Governor Jeb Bush will join Rothwell and Robinson for an in-depth virtual discussion of the implications of the study on Wednesday, September 9 at 11:00 a.m. ET. This webinar is open to the public. Registration information can be found at

The full report “Assessing the Economic Gains from Eradicating Illiteracy Nationally and Regionally within United States,” is available on the Barbara Bush Foundation website at

About the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy: The Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy has been the nation’s leading advocate for family literacy for more than three decades. Founded by former First Lady Barbara Bush in 1989, the Foundation is a public charity that envisions an America in which everyone can read, write, and understand in order to navigate the world with dignity. To learn more, visit

About Gallup: Gallup provides analysis and advice to help leaders and organizations solve their most pressing problems. Combining more than 80 years of experience with its global reach, Gallup knows more about the attitudes and behaviors of employees, customers, students and citizens than any other organization in the world.

SOURCE Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy

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