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WikipediaA five-year, $14 million study of U.S. adult literacy involving lengthy interviews of U.S. adults, the most comprehensive study of literacy ever commissioned by the U.S. government, was released in September 1993. It involved lengthy interviews of over 26,700 adults statistically balanced for age, gender, ethnicity, education level, and location (urban, suburban, or rural) in 12 states across the U.S. and was designed to represent the U.S. population as a whole. This government study showed that 21% to 23% of adult Americans were not "able to locate information in text", could not "make low-level inferences using printed materials", and were unable to "integrate easily identifiable pieces of information."
A follow-up study by the same group of researchers using a smaller database (19,714 interviewees) was released in 2006 that showed no statistically significant improvement in U.S. adult literacy... These studies assert that 46% to 51% of U.S. adults read so poorly that they earn "significantly" below the threshold poverty level for an individual.
The 15% figure for full literacy, equivalent to a university undergraduate level, is consistent with the notion that the "average" American reads at a 7th or 8th grade levelI didn't get a chance to read the root studies, where it appears that you can see where the literacy rates break down (rural/urban, rich/poor, north/south, etc...)