Americans aged 15 to 24 on average spend two hours a day watching TV and only seven minutes on leisure reading, reducing their chances for high-paid jobs and community service, a report by the National Endowment for the Arts showed.
Sixty-one percent of those holding managerial or professional jobs were proficient readers, said the report, citing a 2003 US Education Department survey. Some 70 percent of the people rated as poor readers felt their lack of skills had limited their job opportunities.
The number of adults who read should be increased to improve both the quality of their lives and the future of their children, said Dana Gioia, chairman of the arts endowment, which compiled the report from studies conducted by the Education Department, the American Association of School Librarians and Statistics Canada.
"Is this a cultural apocalypse? No," said Gioia, a 56-year-old poet and literary critic, during a Nov. 13 news conference. "There are still a substantial number of people in the US who read and read well."
The National Endowment for the Arts was created by the US Congress in 1965 to support artistic excellence.
The report concluded that 57 percent of those who had proficient reading skills had performed volunteer work, compared with 18 percent of the people with poor skills.
It also found that the better a person's reading skills, the more likely that person voted in the 2000 election. The Education Department study showed 84 percent of proficient readers voted, compared with 62 percent of those with basic skills and 53 percent of those with poor skills.
"Reading books transforms people's lives," Gioia said. "Reading seems to awaken something in individuals. America cannot afford to lose the benefits of universal literacy."
Gioia said the country needs to promote literacy the way it did science and math after the Soviet Union launched the first Sputnik satellite in 1957, triggering the space race.
"I think our report, `To Read or Not To Read,' needs to summon the same sort of national resolve," Gioia said.
Gioia, the author of Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture, said electronic media, such as television and computers, are threatening the printed word.
"As more and more competing media are introduced into kids' lives, adults' lives, these things make it more difficult to find the time to read," Gioia said.
Watching television dominates all other activities for US adults over 15, the report said, citing a study by the US Department of Labor. On weekdays, US residents spent 2 hours, 21 minutes watching television. The next-highest category was 36 minutes spent socializing.
On weekends, television viewing climbed to 3 hours, 6 minutes. Socializing again took second, at 1 hour, seven minutes. In both cases, people spent less than 30 minutes reading.
"The print media have moved in the wrong direction," Gioia said. "They try to compete with television by resembling television. They should focus on what print can do better."
Gioia said that studies show early reading programs do work. When children hit adolescence, many stop reading, he said.
Parents can help the effort by keeping books in their homes.
"The more books you have at home the more your children read," Gioia said.