Neil Gaiman recently made what has been hailed as one of the best commencement speeches ever at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts (reported here, available as a book here).

In it he talks about the value of literacy. As part of his argument he says (i'm quoting from this report of the speech):

I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read...

It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.

Is he right? What's the evidence? Does illiteracy in the young correlate with criminal behaviour later?

  • Are you asking if this correlation exists in the USA or globally? I imagine that there are places in the world where literacy is non-existant.
    – MrFox
    Oct 21, 2013 at 14:21
  • @MrFox There are also countries with stronger welfare / social security systems, different policies re imprisonment, etc. The claim made by Neil Gaiman was presumably specific to the USA, so I expect that this question should be too.
    – ChrisW
    Oct 21, 2013 at 16:34
  • @MrFox I intended the question to be general despite Gaiman's claim using the USA as an example. I suspect, though, that the differences among countries (especially those with low overall literacy) would preclude direct international comparisons for the whole globe. But perhaps this is a discussion to be had in a good answer.
    – matt_black
    Oct 21, 2013 at 20:30
  • 1
    @ChrisW - what does "stronger welfare / social security systems" have to do with anything? Modern american inner cities have orders of magnitude more "stronger welfare / social security systems" over 150 years ago, and significantly more crime. USSR was a workers paradise where everyone was guaranteed a living and a pension. Didn't get rid of the crime, surprisingly.
    – user5341
    Oct 21, 2013 at 21:31

1 Answer 1


There seem to be a lot of statistics that point to that correlation, e.g. see Read, or Go to Jail that refers to some relevant statistics:

  • 85 percent of all juveniles who interface with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate.
  • More than 60 percent of all prison inmates are functionally illiterate.
  • When the State of Arizona projects how many prison beds it will need, it factors in the number of kids who read well in fourth grade (Arizona Republic (9-15-2004)). Evidence shows that children who do not read by third grade often fail to catch up and are more likely to drop out of school, take drugs, or go to prison. So many nonreaders wind up in jail that Arizona officials have found they can use the rate of illiteracy to help calculate future prison needs.
  • Low literacy is strongly related to crime. 70% of prisoners fall into the lowest two levels of reading proficiency(National Institute for Literacy, 1998).
  • Low literacy is strongly related to unemployment. More than 20% of adults read as or below a fifth grade level – far below the level needed to earn a living wage. enal institution records show that inmates have a 16% chance of returning to prison if they receive literacy help, as opposed to 70% who receive no help. This equates to taxpayer costs of $25,000 per year per inmate and nearly double that amount for juvenile offenders.
  • Illiteracy and crime are closely related. The Department of Justice states, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.” Over 70% of inmates in America's prisons cannot read above a fourth grade level. (Literacy Statistics at Begintoread.com)
  • 1
    Please elaborate/summarise to protect us against link rot.
    – Oddthinking
    Oct 21, 2013 at 8:53
  • Ironically the cited blog entry was apparently never proof-read: the same statistics/phrases are repeated two or three times.
    – ChrisW
    Oct 21, 2013 at 9:49
  • 1
    Sighing at the general lack of control data.
    – Oddthinking
    Oct 21, 2013 at 12:33

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