America’s Most (and Least) Literate Cities

February 21, 2014 by Thomas C. Frohlich

139786707For the fourth straight year, Washington, D.C. is the most literate city in the United States, according to a recent study on literacy. The study, by Central Connecticut State University (CCSU), examined how well Americans used their literacy skills in the nation’s largest cities. Rounding out the top five were Seattle, Minneapolis, Atlanta and Pittsburgh.

CCSU ranked the cities based on six categories: bookstores, residents’ educational attainment, newspaper circulation, use of online resources, the library system, and periodical publishing resources. The most literate cities were largely in the Northeast, and they generally had a well-educated and well-paid population.

Click here to see America’s Most Literate Cities

Click here to see America’s Least Literate Cities

The focus of the study was not on reading test scores, but on reading culture, explained Dr. John W. Miller, head of the study and CCSU president. “This isn’t about whether or not people can read, it’s about whether they do read,” Miller said.

But while Dr. Miller’s study does not consider students’ reading test scores, education still plays a key role, said Miller. All but one of the 10 most literate cities were in the top quartile nationwide for the percentage of people with at least a bachelor’s degree. In Seattle, the second most literate city, 57.7% of the population had a college degree, the highest among all cities considered. But a well-read city should not just be made up of degree-holders, Miller stressed. “It’s not all one way,” Miller said, noting that cities where a large portion of residents are college educated can still slip in the rankings if, simultaneously, many other residents fail to complete high school.

At the other end of the spectrum, cities with poor literacy were also less educated. The 10 cities with the poorest reading habits were also in the bottom quartile nationwide for the percentage of people with a college degree and for the percentage of residents with a high school diploma. Many of these cities were in the bottom quartile nationwide for the percentage of people with a college degree, as well as for the percentage of residents with a high school diploma. In Anaheim and Fresno, less than 75% of residents had a high school diploma, while in Stockton just 17.9% of residents had a college degree — all among the worst rates for major cities.

Another factor the study found that often plays a role in the development of a highly-literate city is income, Miller noted. “Seattle, Minneapolis, they have higher income levels than a lot of cities.” Some cities, however, still scored well despite lower income levels. Miller highlighted New Orleans as an example. The city was in the top quartile for literacy, although its median household income was just $34,361, well below the U.S. median of $51,731.

In order to have a high-paid, well-educated workforce, cities must also have the jobs necessary to bring-in or retain that talent. According to Miller, “Cities that are more successful in terms of business development also have more a more educated population, [and] also have higher income.” In a number of the most literate cities, high-paying professional, scientific, and management occupations are especially prominent. Atlanta, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. all are among most literate cities and in the top five cities for such jobs — measured by percentage of total employment.

For the nation’s least literate cities, the opposite is often true. “Cities that are at the bottom have lower levels of business formation, [and] consequently lower levels of good jobs [and therefore] lower salaries,” Miller told 24/7 Wall St. California cities Fresno, Stockton, and Bakersfield, and El Paso, Texas, were all among the nation’s least literate cities. They also had among the 10 lowest proportions of professional occupations.

Based on the report published by Central Connecticut State University, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the literacy ranking of 77 U.S. cities with populations of at least 250,000. The study reviewed city literacy based on six categories — library systems, bookstores, educational attainment, digital readership, and newspapers and other publications. Education metrics considered by Miller are from 2012, library system data is from fiscal year 2010, and circulation, publication, and bookstore figures are from 2013. To determine the availability of each reading material, the study measured circulation relative to the size of the population. 24/7 Wall St. also reviewed 2012 data from the Census Bureau, including income, and poverty.

America’s Most Literate Cities:

10. San Francisco, CA
> Weekday newspaper circulation per 100: 25.7 (34th highest)
> Pct. adults with college degree: 53.6% (2nd highest)
> Retail bookstores per 10,000: 2.21 (29th most)
> Median income: $73,012 (3rd highest)

San Francisco adults were among the most educated in 2012 — more than half had at least a bachelor’s degree, second-best among all cities reviewed by CCSU. Residents preferred to read books more than residents of the vast majority of other cities. Active readers also used online resources and e-readers very effectively, whether to order reading materials or read the news. San Francisco’s public library system is extensive, with 27 public libraries located throughout the city. The Main Library, which has suffered from violence and patron complaints, announced last year it would invest in more security and custodial staff.

9. St. Louis, MO
> Weekday newspaper circulation per 100: 50.7 (14th highest)
> Pct. adults with college degree: 30.4% (37th highest)
> Retail bookstores per 10,000: 3.83 (15th most)
> Median income: $31,997 (8th lowest)

CCSU gave St. Louis better marks for its magazine and journal publications than all but one other city. The city’s journals and magazine enterprises had among the highest circulation rates in 2013. Libraries were also well-staffed that year, and residents had ready access to media specialists. For every 1,000 people, there was one staff member, more than in every major city except for Cleveland, which despite not making this year’s list, had the best library system in the country. Literacy may improve even more in the St. Louis region following the extensive 2012 renovations of the more than 100-year-old downtown St. Louis public library. The renovated library was well-received by local residents and architects alike. The library won the American Institute of Architects 2014 Honor Award for Architecture.

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8. Boston, MA
> Weekday newspaper circulation per 100: 53.6 (12th highest)
> Pct. adults with college degree: 43.3% (11th highest)
> Retail bookstores per 10,000: 3.00 (21st most)
> Median income: $51,642 (18th highest)

Boston residents were the second-most likely to use a mobile device or the Internet to consume media. As a hub for higher education and learning, it may be surprising Boston was not rated better for literacy. Dr. Miller explained that although higher education tends to increase literacy, the city’s high school dropout rate prevented a better rating. More than 43% of Boston adults had at least a bachelor’s degree in 2012, among the best rates nationwide. High school graduation rates, on the other hand, were not particularly good, at less than 85% that year.

7. St. Paul, MN
> Weekday newspaper circulation per 100: 68.0 (6th highest)
> Pct. adults with college degree: 40.1% (16th highest)
> Retail bookstores per 10,000: 6.43 (6th most)
> Median income: $48,235 (26th highest)

St. Paul continued to have the most bookstores of any city and the greatest variety of them in 2013. According to the report, St. Paul is one of the best cities in the country to find rare books. There were just 13 libraries in St. Paul, less than in most other cities, but with a population of less than 300,000 people, the library system was more than sufficient.

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6. Denver, CO
> Weekday newspaper circulation per 100: 63.5 (7th highest)
> Pct. adults with college degree: 44.7% (9th highest)
> Retail bookstores per 10,000: 2.63 (26th most)
> Median income: $50,488 (23rd highest)

While newspapers have become less popular in recent years, there were still more than 400,000 weekday subscriptions in circulation in the Denver area. In addition, there were more than 600,000 Sunday papers in the area, both more than in most other cities. Denver also has a high quality and well-used library system. There were more than 9.5 million items loaned to the more than 600,000 library users in 2012.

5. Pittsburgh, PA
> Weekday newspaper circulation per 100: 50.0 (15th highest)
> Pct. adults with college degree: 38.4% (18th highest)
> Retail bookstores per 10,000: 3.39 (17th most)
> Median income: $39,884 (18th lowest)

Pittsburgh residents were more likely to use a library than residents of any other city except for Cleveland. The city’s good reading habits may be partly the result of the University of Pittsburgh and its 35,000 students. Students in Pittsburgh had more media specialists available to them than those in all but one other city — more than three per 1,000 students. High school graduation rates were also among the best in 2012, at 92.4%. Accessing reading material via a portable device or the Internet, however, was not as popular in Pittsburgh as it was in other literate cities.

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4. Atlanta, GA
> Weekday newspaper circulation per 100: 56.2 (9th highest)
> Pct. adults with college degree: 47.4% (5th highest)
> Retail bookstores per 10,000: 4.46 (12th most)
> Median income: $46,466 (34th highest)

Atlanta residents interested in reading a Sunday newspaper had more options available to them than in any other city reviewed. ,There were more than 150 Sunday papers per 100 residents in circulation in 2013. Newspapers were widely distributed during the week as well last year, with more than 55 papers in circulation per 100 residents. Magazines were also popular reading materials in Atlanta. Seventy-seven publishers had at least 2,500 magazines in circulation in 2013, more than in all but five other cities.

3. Minneapolis, MN
> Weekday newspaper circulation per 100: 76.5 (4th highest)
> Pct. adults with college degree: 46.8% (6th highest)
> Retail bookstores per 10,000: 5.24 (11th most)
> Median income: $47,604 (30th highest)

There were 41 libraries in Minneapolis in 2010, more than in all but three other cities. Library patrons had more than 15 items checked out on average, among the highest circulation rates that year. Like neighboring St. Paul, bookstores were also more common in Minneapolis than they were in most cities. Minneapolis residents were more likely to read a newspaper than any other city except for Newark in 2013. More than 76 papers were in circulation per 100 residents during the week in Minneapolis, more than all but three other cities.

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2. Seattle, WA
> Weekday newspaper circulation per 100: 38.0 (22nd highest)
> Pct. adults with college degree: 57.7% (the highest)
> Retail bookstores per 10,000: 3.21 (20th most)
> Median income: $64,473 (5th highest)

While Amazon.com — headquartered in Seattle — distributes reading material all over the world, its presence may have had some positive effect on the reading culture of the city. There were more bookstores in Seattle than in many other cities. Seattle’s 27 libraries were also used more than those in most other large cities. On average, a library in Seattle had 19 items circulating among its patrons, more than in all but three other cities. One explanation for Seattle’s excellent reading culture could be the high levels of educational attainment. Nearly 80% of adults had at least a bachelor’s degree in 2012, better than any other region reviewed.

1. Washington, DC
> Weekday newspaper circulation per 100: 68.2 (5th highest)
> Pct. adults with college degree: 53.0% (3rd highest)
> Retail bookstores per 10,000: 2.23 (28th most)
> Median income: $66,583 (4th highest)

D.C. residents were more likely to be reading a variety of media using almost every format. Whether they were using e-readers, books, or mobile devices, people living in Washington D.C. read the most. A strong presence of publishers and libraries may have played a role. More than 160 journals had at least 500 regular readers in 2013, more than in all but two other cities reviewed. Magazine publishers fared even better, with 215 publications distributing their content to larger readerships, more than in than all but one other city. There were 431,521 newspapers in circulations during the week, more than the vast majority of cities.

Click here to see America’s Least Literate Cities

America’s Least Literate Cities

10. Mesa, AZ
> Weekday newspaper circulation per 100: 0.0 (tied-the lowest)
> Pct. adults with college degree: 24.8% (20th lowest)
> Retail bookstores per 10,000: 3.23 (19th most)
> Median income: $47,256 (32nd highest)

Mesa was one of just nine U.S. cities that had no newspapers published in 2013. The city also had just four libraries to accommodate the reading interests of its more than 450,000 residents. Mesa’s population was not as educated as many other large cities as of 2012 — less than one quarter of the population had at least a bachelor’s degree that year. Since Scott Smith was elected mayor in 2008, five new liberal arts colleges have indicated they would open campuses in the city. This may eventually improve the the reading culture among the populace and the demand for more reading services and material.

9. Aurora, CO
> Weekday newspaper circulation per 100: 0.0 (tied-the lowest)
> Pct. adults with college degree: 27.3% (28th lowest)
> Retail bookstores per 10,000: 5.37 (10th most)
> Median income: $50,512 (22nd highest)

Booksellers were exceptionally prominent in Aurora, where there were more than five bookstores per 10,000 residents, more than in the majority of major cities. Despite this, access to reading materials and the use of electronic reading formats were on the whole very poor. Aurora had no local newspapers as of 2013. Residents were also among the least likely to read via the Internet, a mobile device or an e-reader.

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8. Fresno, CA
> Weekday newspaper circulation per 100: 19.0 (34th lowest)
> Pct. adults with college degree: 19.4% (7th lowest)
> Retail bookstores per 10,000: 1.03 (16th least)
> Median income: $38,386 (15th lowest)

As was the case with many cities with poor reading habits, Fresno had few bookstores — slightly more than one per 10,000 residents. Less than 75% of residents had at least a high school diploma, and less than one-fifth had at least a bachelor’s degree, both among the worst nationwide. Low rates of educational attainment have likely lowered incomes in the region. Median income in Fresno was among the lowest, at under $39,000 in 2012. Residents were also among the least likely to use the Internet or other devices to access reading materials.

7. Chula Vista, CA
> Weekday newspaper circulation per 100: 0.0 (tied-the lowest)
> Pct. adults with college degree: 27.9% (30th lowest)
> Retail bookstores per 10,000: 6.06 (8th most)
> Median income: $62,421 (6th highest)

Of the six measures of literacy measured by the study, Chula Vista fared the worst for its magazine and journal publications. There was only one major magazine in circulation in the city in 2013, and not one journal. Also, no newspapers were published in Chula Vista last year, one of only a handful of cities where this was the case. Public libraries in the city have made efforts recently to improve services, including free e-book lending and free tax assistance to library patrons.

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6. Anaheim, CA
> Weekday newspaper circulation per 100: 0.0 (tied-the lowest)
> Pct. adults with college degree: 23.4% (14th lowest)
> Retail bookstores per 10,000: 6.49 (5th most)
> Median income: $55,464 (11th highest)

There were more than 200 retail bookstores serving Anaheim’s more than 343,000 residents. With about 6.5 outlets per 10,000 residents, readers had greater access to bookstores than most other U.S. cities. Based on most other measures, however, literacy was poor in the city. For example, access to other reading materials was dismal in the city, with no newspapers published. Another explanation for the city’s poor literacy could be low educational attainment rates, which tends to mean less demand for publications. Only 73.4% of the population had at least a high school diploma in 2012, among the worst graduation rates nationwide.

5. San Antonio, TX
> Weekday newspaper circulation per 100: 9.4 (11th lowest)
> Pct. adults with college degree: 24.3% (18th lowest)
> Retail bookstores per 10,000: 0.61 (2nd least)
> Median income: $45,524 (35th lowest)

San Antonio had fewer bookstores per 10,000 residents than all but one other city.For the city’s nearly 1.4 million inhabitants, there were just 85 retail bookstores in 2013. There were more media specialists working at San Antonio’s 26 library branches than in most other cities. However, they were likely spread thin because there were also more students and a much larger library population being served by local libraries than in many other cities.

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4. El Paso, TX
> Weekday newspaper circulation per 100: 10.8 (15th lowest)
> Pct. adults with college degree: 22.8% (13th lowest)
> Retail bookstores per 10,000: 0.46 (the least)
> Median income: $40,974 (21st lowest)

The few magazines published in El Paso collectively had among the lowest circulation rates among large cities, and not one journal had a circulation of at least 500 people in 2013. There were also less bookstores available to El Paso’s residents than in any other city last year. Low education rates of the city’s residents may partly explain the low demand for bookstores. Among El Paso adult population, less than one quarter had at least a bachelor’s degree in 2012, worse than most other cities. In 2009, Texas A&M University conducted a study that showed nearly 20% of Texans were unable to read and understand newspaper.

3. Stockton, CA
> Weekday newspaper circulation per 100: 9.4 (12th lowest)
> Pct. adults with college degree: 17.9% (6th lowest)
> Retail bookstores per 10,000: 0.84 (7th least)
> Median income: $43,321 (27th lowest)

With among the lowest circulation rates in the nation, Stockton ranked worse than nearly every other city for its publications and for its library system. The city also had no magazine and journal publications in 2013. For the entire library population, including more than 47,000 students, there was also just one media specialist that year per 1,000 students. According to Dr. Miller, a large immigrant population may be related to a poor reading culture. In 2012, more than 23% of Stockton residents were foreign-born, versus 13% for the nation as a whole.

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2. Corpus Christi, TX
> Weekday newspaper circulation per 100: 12.4 (16th lowest)
> Pct. adults with college degree: 19.8% (8th lowest)
> Retail bookstores per 10,000: 0.67 (3rd least)
> Median income: $49,336 (24th highest)

Many cities in Texas tend to have poor reading habits. And this is particularly true in Corpus Christi. Lower than average library spending in Texas can partly explain the state’s poor literacy scores, according to the Texas Library Association. Corpus Christi’s six library branches served more than 300,000 people and were relatively understaffed. Another factor in the city’s poor showing could be low education attainment rates. Less than one in five adults in Corpus Christi had at least a bachelor’s degree in 2012, among the lowest proportions compared with other large cities.

1. Bakersfield, CA
> Weekday newspaper circulation per 100: 10.1 (14th lowest)
> Pct. adults with college degree: 20.5% (9th lowest)
> Retail bookstores per 10,000: 0.84 (6th least)
> Median income: $53,693 (12th highest)

Bakersfield was the worst city in the U.S. for its overall reading culture. The city was among the worst in the nation for access to bookstores, as well as subscriptions to magazines and scholarly journals. There were just two magazines with at least 2,500 subscriptions in the city in 2013 and no journal publications at all. There was just one independent bookstore in the city last year and just 30 retail book outlets for the city’s more than 350,000 residents. The city’s library system was also poor rated, with low circulation rates and understaffing. Low demand for reading materials could reflect low educational attainment rates — just 77% of adults had a high school diploma in 2012, among the worst nationally.

Click here to see America’s Most Literate Cities