Is innumeracy America's biggest hidden problem?

By Bob Sullivan

You've probably heard that America has a hidden illiteracy problem; millions of Americans can't read at all, while millions more can only read at an elementary school level.

But there's another knowledge problem that faces America – innumeracy. illiteracy when it comes to understanding numbers. People who have this issue are also known as "innumerates."

What is "innumeracy?"

Innumeracy means the same thing as illiteracy, except with numbers, not words. People who have this issue are known as "innumerates." Innumerates are people who are unable to calculate the value of a 10% off sale, for example, or split a lunch bill with two friends – let alone calculate the tip.

With "simple" financial struggles like these, it should go without saying that people who face these issues would also struggle with understanding the differences between mortgage options, car loan options, investment options and other crucial financial decisions.

The term "innumeracy" was coined by a mathematician named John Allen Paulos who published a book of that name in 1988. After pointing out the negative consequences of Americans being bad at math (compared to the rest of the developed world), he made perhaps his most important point of all...

Americans aren't disgusted by this problem. Many think it's funny, even charming. However, for many people who suffer high rates or unfair loan terms simply because they aren't able to stand, this problem is more of a national epidemic that needs to be addressed.

The number of Americans who struggle with math may surprise you

It's hard to quantify the problems of illiteracy or innumeracy (irony intended), but government bodies have tried.

In the last large study conducted back in 2003, the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics found that some 30 million American adults, or about 14%, had "below basic" word skills, meaning they were incapable of completing simple, everyday literacy activities like reading instructions.

The numbers were nearly identical to a similar study conducted about 10 years earlier.

That's an alarming statistic, since it suggests no progress has been made over the years when it comes to teaching more people to read.

But the innumeracy epidemic is far worse...

In the same National Assessment of Adult Literacy completed in 2003, researchers also asked a large sample of adults a series of carefully-crafted questions. The results? 22% of Americans had "below basic" quantitative skills.

In other words, there are 50% more Americans who can’t handle basic math than can’t handle basic word skills.

But there's more. Another 33% had only basic math skills, meaning only about 55% of Americans were unable to do things like:

  • Calculate the total cost of ordering office supplies
  • Determine whether a car had enough gas to get to the next gas station, based on a gas gauge, the distance to the next station and the car's gas mileage

As the questions on the test got harder, fewer Americans answered correctly.

Only 13% of Americans got an "A" on the test, meaning they were considered "proficient" in math. In this case, proficiency meant they could calculate the yearly cost of a life insurance policy using a table that gave the monthly cost for each $1,000 of coverage.

Only about 1 in 7 Americans could pull it off.

On the other side of the test, those 22% of Americans in the 'below basic' group could not answers questions requiring them to do things like:

  • Calculate the weekly salary for a job, based on hourly wages in an ad
  • Calculate the cost of a salad and a sandwich, using prices from a menu

Let me repeat that...

Nearly one-quarter of American adults were stumped when asked to add up the cost of lunch, or what their pay would be...

No wonder people can fall prey to predatory loan and other financial products.

A person who can’t figure out if they have enough gas to get to the next gas station will probably struggle to understand if they have enough money to make it to the next paycheck, or if they can afford to take on a new loan.

What can you do about innumeracy?

So what can you do about innumeracy? The first step to recovering from any issue is to admit the problem and either seek help or help others where you can. The good news is, no one has to be stuck being innumerate forever.

In this day and age, you can find just about any answer to questions about math and personal finance online. There are numerous personal finance personalities, and helpful blogs such as NerdWallet, Bankrate, and our blog right here at Self.

About the Author

Bob Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who focuses on personal finance and consumer fairness and protection issues.

Written on November 18, 2016

Self is a venture-backed startup that helps people build credit and savings.
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