As our nation grapples with solving immediate and long-term challenges, a widespread issue that threatens our economic future is not getting the attention it urgently deserves. That issue is childhood illiteracy, which leaves too many Americans undereducated and underemployed -- and undermines our global competitiveness.
Far too many American children are not reading at grade level. A recent National Assessment of Education Progress Reading Test revealed that two-thirds of U.S. fourth-graders read "below proficiency," while one out of three U.S. students overall scored even lower, failing to read at a "basic" level. Nearly half of the students in both groups come from low-income families.
Childhood illiteracy undermines a critical foundation for success. Children who read below grade level in fourth grade are four times as likely to become high school drop-outs. With 1.2 million students dropping out of high school each year, there is a real cost to our society -- as much as $312 billion in lost earnings, lost tax revenues, and expenses for social services annually.
The single biggest obstacle to literacy for children in need is a lack of access to books. In low-income neighborhoods, there is typically only one age-appropriate book for every 300 children, according to First Book, a national nonprofit organization that connects book publishers and community organizations to provide access to new books for children in need. By comparison, middle-income neighborhoods have a ratio of almost 13 books for every one child.
While there is no silver bullet, one simple step can improve the prospects for building literacy: putting books in children's hands. Children who have access to books often read more and for longer lengths of time than their peers without access. They build stronger vocabularies, and build meaningful connections with the world around them. Perhaps most importantly, book ownership gives them a reason to improve their reading skills, setting them on a much better path to success.
While we often think of giving around the holidays, many communities have worthwhile literacy initiatives to get involved with year-round. Starting a book drive at your workplace, church, or community center to collect new books for children from low-income families, or donating money to non-profit organizations with programs dedicated to fostering childhood literacy can make a huge difference.
Five years ago, we started KPMG's Family for Literacy program through which thousands of our employees and their families -- including mine -- volunteer time and money to donate, collect and distribute books. They visit classrooms and read to children, and step up to put books in the hands of kids who need them the most.
From big companies and local businesses to individual citizens, we have the power to make a difference on this issue, and be part of a change that will benefit our nation for years to come.
Let's work together to turn the page on childhood illiteracy. Our children are counting on us. America can't afford not to act.
John Veihmeyer is the chairman and chief executive of KPMG in the United States and chairman of KPMG across the Americas. He is also the co-founder of the Family for Literacy program at KPMG, an audit, tax and advisory firm.