More Than Half of Adult Philadelphians Are Functionally Illiterate

If you can read this, you have plenty to be thankful for.

In October, the San Francisco Federal Reserve released one of those papers that makes you realize you don’t entirely know what a federal reserve does. It’s called “Relative Status and Well-Being: Evidence From U.S. Suicide Deaths” and it argues that people who aren’t wealthy but who live in wealthy neighborhoods are more likely to commit suicide due to their unfavorable comparison to those around them. They can’t keep up with the Joneses, and that fact makes them miserable.

Suicide is an extreme measure, of course, but we all understand envy, especially the kind that comes from an unflattering comparison. A perfectly good-looking woman in a doctor’s office waiting room might feel fine about herself at noon, but by 12:15, having flipped through Allure, she wants to shoot herself in the face because she’s a dumpy mess. Two seats away, there might be another woman who’s looking at the dumpy mess and sighing sadly, wishing she could be so put together. It’s an endless, pointless spiral.

In her new book Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo writes that the people who lived in the Mumbai slum she covered for three years don’t meet the Indian government’s standards of poverty. During an interview on National Public Radio, host Dave Davies expressed astonishment at this fact. “If these people aren’t poor,” he said to Boo—given that they survive, barely, by picking trash—who is? But it’s all relative. When the slum residents return to their rural home villages, it’s as if Jennifer Lopez is coming back to the “block.” They might as well be draped in bling.

The fact that it’s all relative can make it difficult for us to see ourselves accurately and be grateful for what makes us truly fortunate. So let me help you—yes, you, the person reading this blog entry—out. For instance, I happen to know that even if you wish you were prettier/younger/richer/thinner/employed-er, you’re actually very lucky. I don’t need to see your house or your paycheck or your pants size to know that. I just need to know that you’re reading these words right now.

That’s because half of the people who live in Philadelphia would be unable to do so. According to the Center for Literacy, 52 percent of adult Philadelphians are functionally illiterate. A fact sheet from the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board has even more dire numbers: two-thirds of adult Philadelphians, it says, are low-literate, meaning they don’t possess basic skills. We’re talking about people who read at an eighth-grade level if they’re lucky, who struggle with things like writing checks, reading instructions and forms, filling out applications. They have trouble with numbers and math; they lack critical thinking skills; they’re not aware of how to go online. Every encounter with the world of words is a reminder that when it comes to keeping up with the Joneses, they fall short.

Logging on to the Internet with ease and facility, going to a blog post, reading and scrolling with a mouse or trackpad or smartphone touchscreen—the way you’re doing right now—that’s completely out of reach. Yet here you are. Maybe you’re reading this blog post to kill time. Maybe you’re thinking, “I hate this pollyanna crap that comes around every year at Thanksgiving.” Maybe you’re thinking, “Liz Spikol looks like a chipmunk in that photo.” No offense taken to any of it. Just by being here, you’re blessed.

If it pains us to sometimes drive down a street with houses that are fancier than our own digs, think of the luxuries that are unattainable to a functionally illiterate person—luxuries you and I take for granted. Imagine that the stories and characters from every book they haven’t been able to read spilled out of the pages and filled entire blocks, even cities, with joy and drama and bright lights. What would it feel like to be outside of that? To drive down those streets every day?

I’ve made some assumptions about you, and I could be wrong. In fact, you may be someone who’s still struggling to learn how to use the Internet or how to read well. Or you could be someone who learned late. If so, won’t you tell us your story? Leave it in the comments, or feel free to email me directly at

As for those of you who are as lucky as I am to have been gifted with literacy from an early age, sometimes, when we recognize our good fortune, we feel inspired to be generous. If you feel similarly inspired, go here to learn more about what you can do for Philadelphians who think—who know—that you are the lucky one.