R.Kelly's lawyers say he's illiterate — here's why 32 million Americans may be too

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Book shelves
The Literacy Project estimates that 50 percent of adults cannot read a book written at an eighth-grade level. (Photo: Getty Images)

A judge has vacated a default judgment in a lawsuit against R. Kelly after his lawyers claimed that the R&B artist — who was in jail at the time — couldn’t read it because of a “learning disability.” The suit, accusing him of sexual abuse, is one of four that the artist is facing from women and girls who say he manipulated them.

There’s no way to verify whether Kelly can or cannot read (and, to be sure, that’s far from the most critical part of the narrative). But if the 52-year-old is truly unable to read, he’s one of millions. America, despite being one of the most educated nations in the world, has a major illiteracy problem. Here’s what you need to know.

At least 32 million Americans cannot read.

According to a 2014 study from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 32 million Americans — or about one in seven — are considered illiterate. This means that anything other than a picture book is too hard. “They really cannot read … paragraphs (or) sentences that are connected," Sheida White, a researcher at the U.S. Education Department, told USA Today at the time.

Fifty percent of adults cannot read a book written at the eighth-grade reading level.

The Literacy Project, a nationwide organization that’s working to fix this problem, has recent statistics showing that the number of Americans who are “functionally illiterate” (meaning they can read enough to live and work independently) may be closer to 45 million. Included in this is the staggering fact that 50 percent of American adults cannot read a book written at an eighth-grade level.

The South is the least literate region of the U.S.

While literacy can vary greatly by state, a 2008 study listed the top 10 most literate cities in the U.S. — and only one falls in a Southern state. Included in the list, which was carried out by Central Connecticut State University, are (in order): Minneapolis; Seattle; Washington, D.C.; St. Paul, Minn.; San Francisco; Atlanta; Denver; Boston; St. Louis; Cincinnati and Portland, Ore.

Lack of education and books at home are main causes.

The Literacy Project lists many potential causes of adult illiteracy, but many of them have to do with access to the right resources, and parents who make it a priority. Among the top causes listed on its website are: “Lower income, precarious financial position, and little value given to education and reading within the family.”

Some Americans are working on fixing this.

The most recent data from the Center for the Study of Adult Literacy (CSAL) found that nearly 3 million adults enroll in adult literacy programs each year — most often women — with the intention of improving their skills. Many have a reading comprehension that’s between third and seventh grade.

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