Literacy rates challenge Philadelphia

More than 20 percent of Philadelphia adults lack basic literacy skills. The problem encourages unemployment and homelessness.

The Phillies had better hang on to their World Champions title for as long as possible. Lately, it seems as though baseball is the only thing Philadelphia has going for itself.

On top of the usual high crime and homelessness rates, Philadelphians can’t read.

Recent statistics compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics show that an estimated 22 percent of Philadelphia adults, ages 16 and older, are lacking basic literacy skills, the highest percentage in Pennsylvania. With around 1.1 million adults in Philadelphia, approximately 250,000 of them read at a below basic level. 

An optimistic Philadelphian might consider that not only is Philadelphia the most populated city in Pennsylvania but also is extremely diverse. With a lot of people speaking a variety of languages, it is no wonder our English literacy levels are weak. This could easily skew the survey results.


The National Assessment of Adult Literacy 2003 survey, which was used to synthesize the most recent estimates, identified four performance levels: below basic, basic, intermediate and proficient. The survey results concluded that 22 percent of adults “lack basic prose literacy skills,” which includes being unable to understand basic information.

Cases in which an adult could not complete the survey because of language or mental disability barriers were also included in the results but only account for 2 percent and 1 percent, respectively.

Compared to the national average of 14.5 percent of adults lacking basic literacy skills, 22 percent is very high.

Problems with literacy start when children are young. If nothing is done about it, the problems remain and create even greater dilemmas, including unemployment, poverty, crime and homelessness.

“A huge number of people are being pushed through high school, and their level of literacy is basic or below basic,” said Charles Rand, Director of External Affairs at Philadelphia’s Center for Literacy.

“There are 30 to 50 thousand out-of-school youth [in Philadelphia],” Rand said. “Those people become tomorrow’s unemployed.”

The Center for Literacy is the largest non-profit organization that specializes in literacy in the country and offers programs for adult education, GED and ESL. Rand said the Center for Literacy works to reach children at an earlier age to prevent adult illiteracy.

Rand said the center isn’t pressured by the city, and they are working side-by-side in trying to solve the problem. The center is supported by the School District of Philadelphia, the Board of Education and Mayor Michael Nutter, among others.  

Philadelphia is making an effort to cope with its illiteracy rates, but a much larger problem exists.
“You don’t see [the illiterate]. It’s in the shadows,” Rand said. “It’s much more difficult [to see] than a throng of homeless individuals begging for food.”

While Rand remains positive, he said the Center for Literacy has a long way to go. The Center serves about 5,000 people annually. As the biggest organization of its kind, it barely scratches the surface.
You can’t say Philadelphia isn’t trying. In 1994, the Center for Literacy received the U.S. Secretary of Education Award for Outstanding Adult Education and Literacy Programs.

“We’re very optimistic that what we’re doing matters and makes a difference,” Rand said.

Come on, Philly. Let’s prove to the nation that we’re not only good at baseball, but we can read, too. 

Leah Mafrica can be reached at


  1. Illiteracy is a serious problem in the major cities of America and and I don’t hear anyone plugging this problem into the illegal immigration of millions of people who are illiterate in their own language. These people come here and put their children in public schools. The kids go to school and because of their language difficulties don’t understand what the teacher is saying and they go home to their illiterate parents who can’t help them. It is no wonder that 65% of them drop out of high school. Manufacturing companies are having to move out of Philadelphia, Los Angeles and cities like them in an effort to find workers that can function in our high-tech world. Los Angeles was once a highly industrialized city and it is now 50% illiterate. The cause is that most of the population of Los Angeles are illegals who come to this country without any education and the discouraging fact that it’s not getting any better. As these people multiply which they are doing at about four times higher rate than American citizens do and the result will be that America becomes a Third World nation. All citizenship to America should be limited to those that literacy standards sufficient enough to be hired by major manufactures. The one common denominator of criminals and penitentiaries across this nation is that they can’t read.

  2. Fort Bend County possess a big pool of talented and skilled individuals; 89.7% high school graduates, 45.7% college graduates. The county has a workforce of more than 380,000 people, moreover the County is served by the Ports of Houston and Freeport and it also has three rail lines, Kansas City Southern, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, and Union Pacific. It also has the lowest tax rate in the state making it an ideal destination for businesses.

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