This study attempts to capture one critical index of our nation’s social health--the literacy of its major cities (population of 250,000 and above). This study focuses on six key indicators of literacy: newspaper circulation, number of bookstores, library resources, periodical publishing resources, educational attainment, and Internet resources.

This set of factors measures people's use of their literacy and thus presents a large-scale portrait of our nation’s cultural vitality. From this data we can better perceive the extent and quality of the long-term literacy essential to individual economic success, civic participation, and the quality of life in a community and a nation.

As I've mentioned before, the ranking is necessarily an interpretation of data. What matters most is not whether the rank ordering changes but what communities do to promote the kinds of literacy practices that the data track.

America's Most Literate Cities and the Question of Wealth and Literacy

For the 2011 edition of the survey, I also examined the relationship between a city’s wealth and its literacy. Using US Census data for income in the relevant cities, I learned that wealthier cites are no more likely to rank highly in literacy than poorer cities. For example, Cleveland ranks second lowest for median family income (among the AMLC cities) and yet, thanks to its great library system (ranked #1 in the AMLC) and strong newspaper (#6) and magazine (#5) circulations, it is ranked 13th most literate in the survey. On the other hand, Anchorage, AK is ranked 5th in median family income and only 61st in literacy.

Other notable cities that exemplify this finding are St. Louis, which ranks 70th in median family income but #8 in literacy; Henderson, NV (#7 in wealth and #53 in literacy), San Diego (#8 in wealth and #33.5 in literacy. While poverty has a strong impact on educational attainment, its impact on literacy is much weaker.

These findings suggest that a city’s quality of literacy has to do with many decisions that go beyond just how wealthy and highly educated is the population. Even poorer cities can invest in their libraries. Low income people can use the Internet. Low income cities can produce newspapers and magazines that are widely read throughout the region.

This demonstrates that if cities are truly committed to literacy, they can find a way past poverty and other socio-cultural challenges to create and sustain rich resources for reading.

Dr. Jack Miller,
Central Connecticut State University