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On measuring literacy

  • Basu, Kaushik
  • Foster, James E.

The authors present a new approach to evaluating the level of effective literacy in a region or country, one that takes into account the presence in a household of a literate person. They characterize the approach and give an empirical illustration of its use. They designed the new measures of literacy because traditional measures of the literacy rate (R) ignore how the presence of literate person in the household affects literacy. They contend that literate household members generate a positive externality -- a kind of public good - for illiterate members. They believe their new measures will be superior to R in predicting or explaining other achievements that depend on literacy. They expect the rate of diffusion of a new technology for farming, for example, to be more closely linked to the effective literacy rate than to the usual literacy rate. If an agricultural extension worker leaves behind a brochure explaining how to plant and care for high-yielding varieties, an illiterate person who lives in a household with at least one literate member has access to that public good; an isolated illiterate - whose household has not literate members - may not have. Similarly, if the presence ( or absence) of one literate household member increases the chance of a child becoming literate, so the effective literacy rate should be a better predictor of future generations'literacy rate should be a better predictor of future generations'literacy levels. Some changes in policy emphasis might be expected if the new effective literacy measures are used. There might be a shift, for example, toward ensuring a better distribution of literacy across households or toward addressing more seriously the problem of female illiteracy. More work is needed to determine if a child in a household with a higher percentage of literate adults has more frequent access to literacy skills.

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Paper provided by The World Bank in its series Policy Research Working Paper Series with number 1997.

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Date of creation: 31 Oct 1998
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Handle: RePEc:wbk:wbrwps:1997
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  1. Durlauf, S.N., 1993. "Spillovers, Stratification, and Inequality," Working papers 9327, Wisconsin Madison - Social Systems.
  2. Clark, Stephen & Hemming, Richard & Ulph, David, 1981. "On Indices for the Measurement of Poverty," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 91(362), pages 515-26, June.
  3. Atkinson, Anthony B., 1970. "On the measurement of inequality," Journal of Economic Theory, Elsevier, vol. 2(3), pages 244-263, September.
  4. Mark Rosenzweig & Andrew D. Foster, 1996. "Household Division, Inequality and Rural Economic Growth," Home Pages _074, University of Pennsylvania.
  5. Foster, James & Greer, Joel & Thorbecke, Erik, 1984. "A Class of Decomposable Poverty Measures," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 52(3), pages 761-66, May.
  6. Borjas, George J, 1995. "Ethnicity, Neighborhoods, and Human-Capital Externalities," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 85(3), pages 365-90, June.
  7. Sen, Amartya K, 1976. "Poverty: An Ordinal Approach to Measurement," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 44(2), pages 219-31, March.
  8. Coulter, Fiona A E & Cowell, Frank A & Jenkins, Stephen P, 1992. "Differences in Needs and Assessment of Income Distributions," Bulletin of Economic Research, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 44(2), pages 77-124, April.
  9. Mark Rosenzweig & Andrew D. Foster, . "Technical Change and Human Capital Returns and Investments: Evidence from the Green Revolution," Home Pages _065, University of Pennsylvania.
  10. Coulter, Fiona A E & Cowell, Frank A & Jenkins, Stephen P, 1992. "Equivalence Scale Relativities and the Extent of Inequality and Poverty," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 102(414), pages 1067-82, September.
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