Economic Repercussions of Illiteracy- Arifeen Chowdhury

18510337363_234bcff910_mAttending or working at a renowned institution like the University of Waterloo, issues such as illiteracy may escape daily conversation or thinking, especially in an academic community like ours. Measuring illiteracy is debatable; the most common method is a formula developed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization that accounts for the size and structures of a country’s economy [3]. Despite the common belief that illiteracy most affects the developing world, a recent report from the World Literacy Foundation (WLF) shows otherwise. It highlights that workforce illiteracy cause losses of about $898 billion every year in developed countries and $294 billion in emerging economies— the global economy will lose $1.2 trillion in 2015 [5].

Although many believe Canada is well prepared and established in the education front, the fact is nearly half of the adult population have low literacy skills (42%, between the ages of 16 and 65) and for the past 15 years there has been little improvement [3]. Things aren’t getting any better either. It is projected that by 2031, more than 15 million adults in Canada (3 million more than today) will have low literacy rates if the problem isn’t addressed immediately. All this equates to a $32 billion loss in the Canadian economy this year [5]. Across the border, the United States is projected to lose $362 billion [5] — more than any country in the world. While Canada does have one of the best literacy rates in the world, how literacy is defined distorts the gravity of the situation. With nearly half the working population having low literacy levels, productivity and efficiency is not even close to its best. This extends beyond the bank; low literacy can result in poor health, hygiene, safety and family planning. Andrew Kay, CEO of the WLF expressed, “There’s evidence that a person who is either completely illiterate or has functional illiteracy; that has a lifelong impact on them and their employment, and their ability to earn income. That’s [true] in all countries and all economies.” The Canadian Literacy and Learning Network states that a 1% increase in the literacy rate would generate $18 billion in economic growth every year, and investing in literacy programming has a 241% return on investment, yet nobody wants to chip in due to a lack of short term gains [3].

Canada, with one of the best educational infrastructures and high literacy rates of any country in the world, still suffers due to a significant population of people with low literacy levels. The report highlights to establish adult and parental literacy programs; improving school attendance and retention strategies; inculcating a common interest for knowledge; and strengthening government commitment to literacy initiatives. Numbers do not tell us the complete story, but we do know that immediate action at the grass roots is required. Poverty and illiteracy has been proven to go hand-in-hand, Canadians enjoy government support for K-12 education, but many cannot afford to continue towards higher education. However, the problem today lies in low literacy levels— material usually covered in primary and secondary schools. How do we use community based learning to bridge this disconnect? What is our role in this issue?


[1] Anderson, M. (15 August 2015). Illiteracy will cost global economy $1.2tn in 2015. The Guardian News and Media Group. Retrieved from

[2]Canadian Council on Learning (2010). The Future of Literacy in Canada’s Largest Cities report.

[3] Canadian Literacy and Learning Network (2015). All About Literacy in Canada: Literacy Statistics. Retrieved from

[4] Martinez R., and Fernandez A. (2010). The Social and Economic Impact of Illiteracy: Analytical Model and Pilot Study. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

[5] World Literacy Foundation (24 August 2015). The Economic and Social Cost of Illiteracy: A snapshot of illiteracy in a global context.