Don’t Blame Poverty for Illiteracy in the USA


Three reasons why poverty and pandemic shouldn’t be blamed for worsening illiteracy in the United States

Educators often cite poverty as an excuse for increasing illiteracy in the country. However, studies show poverty inspires a person to succeed. On the other hand, evidence shows that the reading curriculum, broken family, and lack of classroom discipline are to blame. [Calkins is failed; Wisman, Hammer]

Combined with trillions of mounting debt, tent cities, and relentless crime, the future of America is ambiguous as Gen Z, whose literacy is failing, takes over its politics and economy.

1. Literacy has been declining before the pandemic

The USA has a severe and unprecedented illiteracy problem, and the media blames the pandemic. However, literacy has been declining for decades.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, 54% of U.S. adults 16-74 read below the equivalent of a sixth-grade level. [Forbes]

What happened in the last four decades?

In the 1940s, only four percent of Americans were considered illiterate. But by 1990, that number had doubled to 8 percent.

Earlier in the 1980s, a new literacy standard was set to help improve those who could not read or could only read a little.

According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, literacy rose from 15% to 20%, with 67% American literacy, but by the 1990s, it was on a downtrend.

NCES indicates very high literacy among blacks and whites

NCES (National Center for Education Statistics) has emerged as one of the major statistical agencies for education. Beginning in 1976, it expanded to include the race/ethnicity of students.

Despite the absence of accurate data, the percentage of illiteracy among whites was less than 1% of persons 14 years and older in 1979. [NCES]

During the 1960s, there was a rise in the educational attainment of young adults, particularly for blacks. The educational achievement for all young adults remained remarkably stable, with virtually no change among whites, blacks, males, or females.

This suggests that the literacy rate in the United States was relatively high in 1976 and likely increased before then. [NCES]

Interestingly, by the 1990s, about 70% of black males and 69% of black females had completed high school. The difference between blacks and whites was only 1 percent.

The goal set by NCES in 1990 was “By the year 2000, every adult American will be literate…” However, the target was unattained.

Lowering SAT standard in 2016

For decades, there has been no significant improvement in SAT scores (critical reading) for Whites, Blacks, Native Americans, or Hispanics, except for Asians, whose SAT scores continue to improve.

The College Board, which administers the SAT exam, made changes to the SAT scoring system in 2016 to address declining SAT scores for the last half a century.

1972530 2017*533 (Start of lower standard)
1982504 ↓2018*536
1992500 ↓2019*531 
2002504 ↓2020*528
2012496 ↓2021*533
2013496 ↓2022*529  
2014497 ↓
2015495 ↓
2016494 ↓
* Massive redesign in 2016 helped pump up scores.

Lower SAT standards to accommodate declining scores

Score range600-2400↓ 400-1600
Total questions/task171↓ 154 (optional essay)
Guessing penaltyMinus 1/4 point/incorrect↓ Removed
75th percentile “good score”1480↓ 1060
50th percentile “average score”1720↓ 1200
Poor score1260↓ 920
SOURCE:  College Board’s 2017; College Board’s 2015; Prep Scholar.

No improvements since 1992

Since 1992, there has been no significant score improvement in reading, writing, and comprehension. Instead, recent data show the average reading performance of fourth and eighth graders declined from 2017 to 2019. [NRC; NAEP]

  • In 2014, the first edition of Lucy Calkin’s K-2 Units of Study in Reading was introduced. She believes kids are natural readers, but data show that’s not the case.
  • Since 2017, there has been a significant change in the percentage of fourth-grade students at or above Proficient in reading compared to 2015. The American literacy rate was already at a low 79%. during this period. [NAEP] [Gallup]
  • In 2019, a third of all fourth graders still can’t read at a basic level. Most students are inept readers even after graduating from high school. [APM]
  • By 2021, Gallup data show that 54% of Americans (16 to 74 years old) read below the 6th-grade level. [B. Bush foundation]

The point is that Illiteracy in the USA has been diving even before the pandemic, while global adult literacy increased to 86.7 % in 2020 with an average annual rate of 0.36%. [Knoema]

In 2022, reading scores regressed to their lowest levels because of the pandemic lockdown.

(PHOTO: Screenshot of NAEP reading average score for three decades) Scores decline in reading in grades 4 and 8. In 2022, there were no significant score changes compared to 1992.


2. Poverty drives a person to succeed

Poverty and racism have always been blamed for poor school performance in the U.S., but in Asian cultures, poverty inspires literacy.

Although poverty is not just about having not enough food on the table, the experience is supposed to trigger a person to strive harder.

For one thing, research indicates hunger affects higher cognition, particularly proactive interference resolution when exposed to food stimuli. Hunger strengthens resistance to interference, prioritizing relevant information over irrelevant. [Research Gate]

Asians in poverty are exceptions to the consensus

Immigrants whose mother tongue is not English have difficulty understanding the medium of instruction—except Asians. Despite language barriers, Asians do very well in school.

The same “Asian rank” is similar across public high schools in the United States. In fact, Asians are the most educated group in America. [Palasek, PNAS, Census]

The economic woes of an Asian immigrant

  • Even if Asian immigrants brought with them money to the U.S., the conversation rate decreased the value of their savings.
  • Even for college graduates, immigrants are underemployed or in low-paying jobs unless they can afford to update their education.
  • Despite the odds, many Asian immigrants succeed because they bring with them the values, discipline, and determination that are keys to success—whether for economic or academic gain.

Race is not necessarily a factor in the literacy gap

Historically, Black Americans face socioeconomic disparities and a literacy gap often attributed to their lower socioeconomic status.

However, there was a period in history when the literacy gap between whites and blacks wasn’t as wide as it is today. Similarly, disparities between Asians and whites were wider in the 1970s.

1865: Black-White literacy gap – 81% Blacks illiterate, 9% Whites. [Sage]
1979: The literacy gap between Whites and Blacks narrowed to about the same. [NCES 120 Years]
2003: Black-White adult literacy gap – 10.7%. [NAAL]
2022: NAEP Average score in 2022: 198 Blacks, 226 Whites (28 points gap). [NCES]

No Excuse: Poor Asian countries show an upward trend in literacy

Case study: Poverty and academics

According to data, poverty correlates strongly with academic results. Families with comfortable incomes usually have higher scores in the United States [ACT 2015]

For example, in the four buildings of Glenbard District in Illinois, the West and South buildings have high ratings in terms of grades and character behavior compared to the East and North.

Glenbard’s East and North buildings have a more significant immigrant population, mainly at the low-income level.

I observed similar attributes in Wheaton, Hindsdale, and La Grange high school districts. They’re in upscale neighborhoods with fewer low-income immigrants and good school ratings.

But does it really tell the whole story?

If third-world Asian countries have better literacy rates than the U.S., where does one draw the line on poverty? Should Americans be as poor as a third-world country to inspire academic excellence?

Case study: Filipino immigrants

  • In poorer Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines, poverty is often correlated with poor grades.
  • The poverty level in the Philippines since 2000 has been an average of 40% as compared to the USA, with only 12%.
  • About 92 percent of Filipinos 10 to 64 years old are functionally literate. [PSA, 2019]

Filipino immigrants came from a country with inadequate academic support when comparing it to the U.S. Still, Filipino-Americans (from immigrant families) rank higher in ACT/SAT compared to Whites.

Filipino immigrants who move to the United States often excel in their grades for two reasons:

  • The U.S. curriculum is easier compared to the Asian system.
  • Poverty drives Asian immigrants to do well in their education.

Case study: Asian Americans from India

South Asia accounted for 29% of the people living in extreme poverty worldwide (216 million extremely poor in South Asia out of the estimated 736 million extremely poor worldwide). [World Bank]

  • Four out of five extremely poor in the South Asia region resided in India, according to harmonized variables covering 1993-2017 by SARMD.
  • Indian Americans (not Native Americans) are among the most highly educated racial or ethnic groups in the U.S. [Pew]
  • Indian immigrants in the U.S. continually outpace every other ethnic group socioeconomically, per U.S. Census statistics.[IANS, 2009]
  • Americans with Indian roots account for at least 29.5% of the total physician population. [AAPI]


U.S. and Asian disparity

Asian literacy, in contrast to the USA, has shown NO significant score improvement in reading, writing, and comprehension since 1992. On the other hand, data show that the literacy rate has been on an upward trend in Asia since the 1970s. [Index Mundi]

Academic excellence typically translates into better socioeconomic status, but of course, there is also income inequality among Asians.

Socioeconomic inequality among Asians

Academic excellence usually converts to higher income. However, the uptrend in Asians’ socioeconomic status is not shared by all Asians. Noticeably, as Asians get absorbed into the general American populace’s norms, they also become complacent.

For example, income inequality among Asians in the U.S. nearly doubled from 1970 to 2016. Evidently, some second or third-generation Asians have lost certain values necessary for academic excellence.

Rooted in policies and ideologies

Poverty cannot be used as an excuse for bad behavior in class. Although poverty is associated with poor academics, factors that contribute to America’s education dilemma are rooted in policies and ideologies.

Asian literacy (ages 15-24) from 1974 to 2020
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is index-mundi-asian-literacy-1970s-1024x315.jpg
Index Mundi: Literacy rate, youth total (% of people ages 15-24) in South Asia was 90.53 as of 2020. Its highest value over the past 45 years was 90.53 in 2020, while its value was 47.80 in 1976.
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is index-mundi-asian-literacy-adults-1024x315.jpg
Index Mundi: The literacy rate of adults (% of people ages 15 and up) in South Asia continues to increase.

3. Broken family, not poverty

In 2021, 19.5% of African Americans lived below the poverty line, while 17% of Hispanics (mostly legal immigrants) were also impoverished. Both ethnicities score lowest in standardized tests. [Statista] [Ballard]

However, Asian immigrants, who are mostly from intact families and non-native English speakers, score the highest on standardized tests and lowest in the FBI crime index but suffer the most hate crimes in recent years.

Correlation between broken homes and poverty

  • Almost half of Americans experience poverty—following a divorce. [J. Health]
  • 75% of all women who apply for Welfare come from disrupted marriages. [Fagan]

Correlation between broken homes and poor academics

  • Broken families experience lower levels of educational achievement [Heritage]
  • Children from lower-income households score significantly lower on vocabulary, communication skills, math, concentration, and cooperativeness. [Thomas]
  • Fatherless children are twice as likely to drop out of high school than children with both parents at home. [Census 2021]
  • 71% of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes – 9 times the average. [NPAR]
  • Broken families experience lower levels of educational achievement, which becomes an expanding cycle.
  • Children from broken homes have little or no interest in learning materials. Instead, they carry emotional frustration from home to school. [Research Wrap]
  • One-parent children lack self-control and may become disruptive in class instead of paying attention. [Hetherington, Cox, Cos, 1982]

Correlation between intact family and academics

  • Children with engaging fathers are more likely to get A’s in school. [NRFC]
  • Fathers who are fit have healthier children who do well in school. [Heritage]
  • A stable home environment creates happier children. [Norman]
  • People who have fond memories of childhood, specifically their relationships with their parents, tend to have better health, less depression, and fewer chronic illnesses. [APA]

Fathers who are involved are more likely to get A’s in school.

4. Poverty is incentivized in the United States

Poverty drives a person to succeed, but in America, it is incentivized. Recent policies also gave way to social justice ideologies that incentivize groups of people because of their color.

In Democrat-led states like Chicago, criminals are free to go if they can’t afford bail. Likewise, drug users, common in tent cities, are incentivized by giving free drug syringes and free food instead of arrest.

Poor, mentally deranged people on the street roam free in Democrat-run cities like California. It used to be that these people were caught, placed in asylums, and treated, but these facilities were deinstitutionalized in the 1980s.

Experts frequently attribute low academic outcomes and high crime rates to poverty. However, psychologist Dr. Jordan Peterson argues that “relative poverty,” distinct from (absolute) poverty itself, is the root cause. [Gini Coefficient]

While there appears to be a correlation between poverty, it is wrong to assume it can threaten child development.

  • Low-income children have equal educational opportunities, though learning facilities may vary.
  • Wealthier parents who can afford tutors have nothing to do with poorer kids who can’t afford them.
  • Rich children read more and learn more, but so can poor kids through public libraries.
  • Nutrition gaps between rich and poor families have nothing to do with how much they can spend but what parents feed their children. Properly spent food stamps can accommodate adequate nutrition.

Effects of Incentivized Poverty

The current Food Stamp probably discourages marriage and rewards single parenthood. About 85% of aid goes to children with single-parent or no-parent families. Thus, incentivizing poverty and other means-tested aid programs, in effect, penalize marriage.

Effects of incentivized poverty on education outcomes:

  • Young women raised in families dependent on welfare are two to three times more likely to drop out and fail to graduate from high school than are young women of similar race and socioeconomic backgrounds not raised on welfare. [Forste, Tienda]
  • The more years a child spends on welfare, the lower the child’s I.Q. by as much as 20%, according to former CBO Director Dr. June O’Neill. [Heritage]
  • A study by Mary Corcoran and Roger Gordon of the University of Michigan shows that welfare negatively affects the long-term employment and earnings capacity of young boys.
  • The more welfare income received by a family while a boy was growing up, the lower the boy’s earnings as an adult. [Forste, Tienda]

Effects of incentivized poverty on single parents:

According to conservative author Candice Owens, broken families are the main reason for Black poverty, along with bad behavior and school fallout associated with it.

  • Children raised by never-married mothers have significantly more behavior problems than those raised by biological parents. [Pew]
  • Children raised by never-married mothers were seven times more likely to be poor compared to those with intact families. [Marripedia]
  • Studies show single parenthood and academic performance are associated. [NCBI]  

The bottom line is that ideologies are shaping a lazy generation

Leaders, especially from blue states, are weaponizing ultra-liberal ideologies to create policies that give birth to an entitled generation—and it is producing a lazy generation.


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