Nearly One in Five Americans Has Low Basic Skills, but Solutions Exist to Strengthen America’s Workforce

By Marcie Foster

One month after the release of the international report that found the U.S. lagging behind in measures of adult skills, the U.S. Department of Education has released new data that sheds light on the depth and severity of the problem.

Literacy, Numeracy, and Problem Solving in Technology-Rich Environments Among U.S. Adults: First Look examines basic skills by demographic and other socioeconomic factors, including race, educational attainment, foreign status, and age. This critical information will enable us to design smarter, more effective policy solutions that improve the skills of America’s adults and youth.

A first look at these data show that almost one-fifth (18 percent) of U.S. adults have low literacy-and almost one-third (30 percent) have low numeracy, or basic math, skills. Other key findings from the report include the following:

  • 20 percent of adults with a high school diploma have only beginning literacy skills. In addition, more than one-third (35 percent) of adults with this level of education have only beginning numeracy skills. Today, graduating from high school does not guarantee that one has the skills needed to compete for family-sustaining jobs, which often require higher-level skills and postsecondary credentials.
  • 14 percent of young adults (ages 16-24) have low literacy skills and 30 percent have low numeracy skills. More young adults in the U.S. are low-skilled compared to the international average (11 percent). Without targeted education and skills training focused on the unique needs of this population, the long-term mobility of these workers will be compromised and the future economic vitality of the U.S. workforce will be endangered.
  • People from minority and underrepresented groups have the lowest literacy levels in the U.S. Blacks adults are twice as likely to have low literacy and numeracy skills compared to all adults generally (35 percent have low literacy). This gap is even higher among Hispanic adults: 43 percent have low levels of literacy and 56 percent have low numeracy skills.

These new data-the first to examine adult basic skills in over a decade-point to the need for a stronger, more comprehensive approach to educating America’s current and future workforce. Educating workers, both young and old, and helping them get on a path to postsecondary credentials provides them with individual economic mobility and strengthens the U.S. economy and state budgets.

Developing pathways to postsecondary credentials and economic success will require state and federal investments in education and training for low-income, low-skilled workers, as well as a fundamental rethinking of policies and service delivery models. Strategies to achieve these goals include: refocusing adult education and English language services on postsecondary and career success; developing career pathways to postsecondary credentials for low-skilled adults, disadvantaged and disconnected youth, and low-income adults; and addressing inequities in in college access and success for youth of color.

Learn more about CLASP’s policy solutions to strengthen America’s workforce in From PIAAC to Policy Solutions: Promoting Postsecondary and Economic Success for Low-Skilled Workers.