Does reading matter? The truth about illiteracy is stark and sobering. For a long time men and women could get by without strong literacy skills, but that era is over. A lack of reading skills is a significant detriment to one’s ability to find quality work, and there is a very strong correlation between illiteracy, crime and poor health outcomes.
If there is a single common factor amongst incarcerated individuals, it is that the vast majority dropped out of school. A lack of education severely limits what any individual can do within our modern society, as most jobs (even labor jobs) require a minimal level of basic reading and writing skills.
Who drops out of school in the first place?
Dropouts are primarily students who struggled to read from an early age. Kids who fall behind in reading, writing and vocabulary development are generally well aware of the gap between themselves and their peers. For some students, the gap appears so wide that they no longer see any point in trying to catch up.
Not all dropouts end up in prison, of course. However, uneducated workers earn far less on average than individuals with a diploma. In a world where costs continue to rise and the middle-class continues to stretch thinner and thinner, a 30% loss in earning power is a significant disadvantage.
The connection between illiteracy and crime starts early. Poor reading skills compound over time as the gap between proficiency and illiteracy grows. Students who feel they cannot catch up often turn to behaviors society wishes they would avoid, and for some of those students it will lead to dropping out of school altogether.
Illiteracy leads to more than just criminal behavior. Low literacy is connected to low-wage, high-risk jobs that correlate to more injuries at work. Low-wage employment offers fewer incentives to stay home and get well when workers are sick. And low-literacy individuals often struggle to read and understand medical prescriptions, making overdoses more likely.
Thankfully pandemics don’t come along and shut down the whole world very often. But COVID-19 has been a case-in-point for the vulnerability of illiterate, uneducated workers. No other group experienced such a high rate of unemployment during the pandemic. By comparison, those with masters degrees and PhDs saw unemployment rates below 20% and 15% respectively.