47% are illiterate in Detroit

Some 47 percent of Detroit’s adults are “functionally illiterate,” according to the Detroit Regional Workforce Fund, a job training nonprofit.

That means they can’t fill out a form or a job application, said Karen Tyler-Ruiz, the group’s director. “Reading a prescription; what’s on the bottle, how many you should take… just your basic everyday tasks,” she said. “I don’t really know how they get by, but they do. Are they getting by well? Well, that’s another question.”

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has appointed Roy Roberts, a retired General Motors executive, as emergency financial manager — effectively, superintendent — of Detroit Public Schools. The state took over the school district in 2009.

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  1. I wonder if this is a result of social breakdown as well as educational breakdown.

    If nearly half the people you know are illiterate, there’s no shame in being illiterate. Because hey, “Bob” can’t read either, and he’s doing just fine. Also, I wonder if they could plot this out by address…. I’d bet there are clusters where the illiteracy rate is much higher than 50%—maybe even neighborhoods where illiteracy is the norm and the ‘readers’ are freaks.

    Teaching reading isn’t rocket science, but you do need a pupil who sees reading as a ‘good,’ something adults do, something that is necessary even when it’s not fun.

    Otherwise, if reading is just a lifestyle choice, and an odd one at that, why bother putting in the hard work of learning phonics in order to gain the skill?

  2. bandit says:

    “I wonder if this is a result of social breakdown as well as educational breakdown.”

    I guess that kind of goes without saying. It also makes it a lot easier for those in charge. Don’t need to worry about any bad news in the newspaper.

  3. Is there any State in this Union in as bad a shape as Michigan? Wow…

  4. E.D. Kain has documented an effort to find the source of that statistic:


  5. I’m glad to see Aaron has posted what he did. I spend about thirty minutes trying to track down the actual methodology used to determine that statistic, and I just couldn’t do it. Every report or study just began with that premise. Half the city illiterate? That just doesn’t pass the common sense test for me. I mean, maybe it’s true, but I’d really like it if the #s were a bit more transparent.

  6. Cardinal Fang says:

    To summarize what Aaron links to: there is no new study. In 1993, the National Institute for Literacy did a national survey on literacy, and concluded that nationwide, about 22% of American adults were functionally illiterate.


    This report also gave estimates about the literacy (in 1993, remember) of various cities and counties. Detroit, by the way, was by no means the worst city. In general, southern states had more illiteracy than northern states. Very, very few cities had less than 10% illiteracy, even rich tony cities like Palo Alto, CA.

    It’s shoddy to quote the number about Detroit without mentioning that it’s an estimate with a confidence interval greater than + or – 5%, that it’s from 1993, that it’s not uniquely bad and that many other counties and municipalities were worse.

  7. Roger Sweeny says:

    Aaron and Cardinal Fang,

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for giving the context for that number.

  8. In addition, the CIA World Fact Book estimates the literacy rate in the US to be close to 99%, so I find this statistic questionable.


  9. Cardinal Fang says:

    Mike, we shouldn’t compare apples with oranges. Most “functionally illiterate” people can read a paragraph out loud. They’re not totally illiterate, but they’re unable to process even minimally complex written material, such as a job application.