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Why do millions of Americans struggle with reading and writing?

A new government study looks at factors like income and identifies specific skills that could be challenging.

Third grade students pick out books to read in the International Community School's library in Decatur, Ga., in this Sept. 2008 photo. In a government report released Wednesday, about 30 million people – 14 percent of the US population 16 and older– have trouble with basic reading and writing.

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff/FILE

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For the first time, a detailed portrait of America's least literate adults is emerging.

About 30 million people – 14 percent of the US population 16 and older – have trouble with basic reading and writing. Correlating factors that were explored in a new government report include poverty, ethnicity, native language background, and disabilities.

Of these 30 million people, 7 million are considered "nonliterate" in English because their reading abilities are so low. When shown the label for an over-the-counter drug, for instance, many in this subgroup cannot read the word "adult" or a sentence explaining what to do in the event of an overdose.

Adult literacy "is a core social issue that if we could fix as a nation, we would make inroads into fixing many other social problems," says David Harvey, president and CEO of ProLiteracy, an advocacy group based in Syracuse, N.Y. "Low literacy levels are correlated with higher rates of crime, problems with navigating the healthcare system, problems with financial literacy. We know that some of the folks who signed subprime mortgages didn't understand what they were signing."


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