Can we tackle health and economic disparities through literacy?

Yes. The benefits of being able to read and comprehend math impact health, well-being and the economy.


The U.S. Department of Education estimates that 130 million Americans struggle to read a basic sentence.

Literacy impacts all aspects of life. How do you fill out a job application? Read the instructions on your prescription? Add up the cost of your groceries?

Metopio has added new data about adult literacy (reading comprehension) and numeracy (mathematical comprehension) from the National Center for Education Statistics via their Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) collected over a 6 year time period to help you understand how literacy impacts the populations and places you care about.

There are four new topics that provide insight into how many adults struggle with reading and math across the country:

  • NCT Literacy, average score
  • NCO Numeracy, average score
  • NCS Poor literacy (functionally illiterate)
  • NCN Poor numeracy (functionally innumerate)
What is at risk with low literacy?

Communities that are at risk for unemployment and experience poor health outcomes are the same communities that have low literacy and numeracy.

These risks snowball. We can see income and low literacy and numeracy are highly correlated. Lower incomes generate less resources for public schools which are primarily funded through property taxes. Poorer education leads to lower earnings potential.

Higher property taxes lead to significantly higher literacy scores, at least initially. Very few counties with median property taxes below $1,000 per year have average literacy scores above 276 (in the “proficient” range).

If we look at counties with particularly poor literacy and counties with lower-than-average property taxes, we see three areas of concentrated disadvantage in the United States – the Deep South, Desert Southwest and Appalachia. Low literacy and numeracy prevent millions of Americans from all racial and ethnic backgrounds from participating fully in society.

In many of these counties, nearly half of all adults have significant difficulty reading and they struggle with simple finances or understanding terms like “APR” and “interest” when trying to get credit.

Multiplying impact and creating opportunity

The importance of focusing on these key reading, math and comprehension skills in early education is evident as we see the effect of literacy diminish as education level increases. A 10% increase in 9th grade graduation rates improves the average literacy score in a county by 27 points (on a 0-500 scale). A similar increase in high school and post-secondary graduation rates only impacts the average literacy score by 19 and 10 points, respectively.

Solving for these challenges can have positive multi-generational impacts and help solve persistent inequities in today’s society. For example, the National Institutes of Health indicated that a mother’s literacy has a greater impact on her children’s academic success than her income level.

These additional data sets can help us understand the pivotal role that education has on the well-being of individuals, families and communities.

Do you have data that would enhance this analysis?

Metopio aggregates high-quality, verified data to understand places and populations. We are always seeking data that can help policy-makers, strategists, healthcare leaders and advocates make better, more informed decisions. Let us know! Contact us

Leave a Reply

Demo Request

Please fill out the form and we'll reach back out shortly to schedule your demo.