top of page
  • Marcus J. Hopkins

Appalachia's Growing Adult Literacy Crisis

By: Marcus J. Hopkins

December 15th, 2022

A recent report from ProPublica came into my inbox yesterday, with this headline:

The first thought that came to my mind was, "That statistic is almost accurate."

In their reporting, Waldman, Swaby, Clark, and Santa Cruz used the same data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), and the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) results from the most recent testing cycle published in 2021.

In their opening statistic, they count only adult readers who scored Level 1 or lower—essentially, those who read below a 3rd Grade level (for a more detailed explanation of the PIAAC, please check out our primer here)—and by that measure, they are 100% correct.

Roughly 1 out of every 5 American adults reads below a 3rd Grade level, and this report highlights a gigantic issue that few elected officials seem willing to address—there are neither federal- nor state-level plans to effectively address adult literacy issues. More importantly, there are insufficient funds appropriated to address these critical needs.

According to their reporting, just $675 million in federal funds were appropriated for adult education in 2021, and that amount has remained relatively flat-funded for over more than 20 years (Waldman, Swaby, Clark, & Santa Cruz, 2022). Moreover, those Funds are allocated for the entirety of the vast array of adult education services, rather than addressing just adult literacy issues.

Moreover, their report correctly identifies the significant barriers to accessing adult educational services in the United States:

  • A lack of available programs

  • A lack of resources for existing programs to meet the growing need

  • A lack of certified and trained educators able to provide adult educational services

  • The growing waitlists for adults seeking educational services

  • A system that is designed to meet the needs of adults whose needs can be met quickly and cheaply

  • Transportation barriers

  • Geographic barriers

  • Financial barriers

  • A lack of accessible classes when students need them

These barriers exist in virtually every county and state, but are especially egregious in rural and Appalachian counties, where chronic underfunding, poor infrastructure, and aging and decreasing populations result in an environment where there is little political will and even fewer financial incentives to adequately address these issues.

While the reporting by ProPublica's team is stellar, it leaves out an important part of the equation: Adults who struggle with reading include more than just the ~20% who scored Level 1 or lower on the PIAAC.

While the ProPublica report looks at adults who score Level 1 or lower, the Appalachian Learning Initiative calculates adult literacy levels by combining Levels 0-2 in order to better capture the number of adults who struggle to read above an 8th Grade level.

We do this because we understand that the reading proficiency standards set by the PIAAC during its development considered "Level 3" to be the standard for which all nations should aim. Essentially, these are the levels of reading, math, and digital skills that should be attained by any adult who has completed a high school-level education.

In few other places are these issues more pronounced than in the Appalachian Region.

Our opening graphic shows a heatmap of adult literacy rates in Appalachian counties using the combined Levels 0-2 assessment. In this graphic, we show that the percentage of adults reading at or below an 8th Grade level ranges between 36.5% and 88.1%.

But, this image implies that adult literacy deficiencies are less severe in greener jurisdictions. In order to provide a more accurate picture of literacy issues in Appalachian jurisdictions, we changed the scale to reflect a 0% to 100% range, resulting in the following heatmap:

Using a 0%-100% scale, we can see that the percentage of adults who read at or below an 8th Grade level in Appalachia is nearly 66%, or 2 out of every 3 adults, and more accurately conveys the severity of the issues we face.

As economies, technology, and employment requirements advance, the levels of educational attainment that could once all but guarantee someone a good chance to attain a middle-income wage and lifestyle are no longer sufficient to meet modern demands. Research published by the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy in 2020 estimated that adult illiteracy may be costing the United States economy $2.2 trillion per year—nearly 10% of our Gross Domestic Product (Rothwell, 2020).

The benefits of improving adult literacy will certainly include positive economic impacts—an argument that has been used since the beginning years of free public education—but will also provide adults with better opportunities for personal economic advancement and improve health outcomes through increased health literacy.

In 2023, APPLI will be working toward developing advocacy toolkits for each of Appalachia's 13 states that will include the following:

  • State-level literacy, numeracy, and public health data to inform advocacy efforts

  • Tools for developing effective advocacy campaigns

  • Local-, state-, and federal-level contact lists

  • Resource guides for adult education providers

These guides will be developed over the course of the year, released to the public throughout 2023, and updated annually to reflect new data and contact information as they become available.

In the meantime, I encourage you to learn more about statistics in your own Appalachian jurisdiction by checking out our Infographics Database.


Rothwell, J. (2020, September 8). Assessing the Economic Gains of

Eradicating Illiteracy Nationally and Regionally

in the United States. Washington, DC: Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.

Waldman, A., Swaby, A., Clark, A., & Santa Cruz, N. (2022, December 14). A Fifth of American Adults Struggle to Read. Why Are We Failing to Teach Them?. New York, NY: ProPublica: Education.


bottom of page