In response to Bette Midler saying that West Virginia is moving backward, and is poor, illiterate and strung out, (she apologised but didn't retract the statement as untrue) it's been claimed that West Virginia has higher literacy rates than highly urbanised "blue" states such as New York (where she lives as of 2021), California, and New Jersey.

Example claims:

David Shafer, Republican:

West Virginia has a higher literacy rate than New York, California or New Jersey and would like likely have fewer poor people had the Democrats not demolished the mining industry.

A tweet replying to Midler, citing https://worldpopulationreview.com/state-rankings/us-literacy-rates-by-state, comparing West Virginia with New York.

Does West Virginia have higher literacy rates than these kinds of states?

  • 20
    English literacy, or literacy in any language? Dec 22, 2021 at 5:53
  • 3
    @justforplaylists good question. I guess it depends whether you regard “illiterate” as not having necessary skills to work in a variety of occupations, or a synonym of “uneducated” or “stupid”. If the former, then “illiterate in English” would be the best match, while the latter would better match “illiterate in any language”. Given the tone of the original tweet, I think the latter is more appropriate. I assume comparatively few people in WV are non-native speakers of English, but I could be wrong.
    – Golden Cuy
    Dec 22, 2021 at 7:06
  • IME, "literacy" as a term is so vague and contextual as to be meaningless. If I am campaining for additional money for my school district, then I will define "literacy" to be some absurdly high standard that lets me "prove" that my district has a literacy problem. If I am campaigning to bring business here on account of my district's high levels of literacy, I will define literacy to mean "can read and write own name" or some other very low bar. Dec 24, 2021 at 19:03
  • What exactly is a state 'like' New York?
    – tuskiomi
    Dec 30, 2021 at 17:27

1 Answer 1


Drawing from this raw data posted in the comments

  • 21% of West Virginians are at or below Level 1 PIAAC competency, the ability to "locate a single piece of information that is identical to or synonymous with the information given in the question or directive" in English. 28% of Californians, 24% of New Yorkers, and 21% of New Jerseyans are at or below this rate.
  • 37% of West Virginians are at or above Level 3 PIAAC competency, which includes the ability to "identify, interpret, or evaluate" "rhetorical structures". 46% of Californians, 44% of New Yorkers, and 47% of New Jerseyans are at or above this rate.

On average, West Virginia appears to have fewer people with very low literacy than the coastal states, but also fewer people with very high literacy. The latter figure is a larger figure so this will push West Virginia towards the back of the pack in ranking overall literacy skills, although it may indeed have fewer people who are completely illiterate in English.

The government agency that does the counting ranks West Virginia in the bottom 25% states for average combined English literacy and numeracy skills... alongside California and New York. Most of the states in the top 25% are bordering Canada, and nearly all of the worst 10 counties are Texas counties bordering Mexico.

Since this answer might serve to validate some people's stereotypes about West Virginia, I would also like to examine the logic of Bette Midler's tweet, which refers to West Virginia as poor and illiterate on the watch of Joe Manchin. The assumptions here appear to be that poverty and illiteracy accompany ignorance, and that West Virginians vote for Joe Manchin because they are ignorant, and that he keeps them that way. These assumptions appear fallacious (and mean, and stupid) on first glance and certainly merit critical thought.

  • 8
    Since this topic kind of centers around education, are there any segmentations based on grade school attendance? Basically, what's the literacy rates of the school children? I worry about the data being dragged down in some areas by non-English speaking adult immigrants, and further tainted by large areas with populations that were educated elsewhere (most large cities, especially the ones with much recent growth).
    – user11643
    Dec 22, 2021 at 14:14
  • But on the other hand, I guess the "literacy" of some types might be correlated with other things ...
    – user11643
    Dec 22, 2021 at 14:15
  • 43
    West Virginia is almost certainly going to have fewer people who can't read in English compared to states that have a bunch of ESL (or completely non-English learning) immigrants. I'm surprised that other people are surprised by this. Dec 22, 2021 at 14:32

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