The inability to read is silently eating away at America, ruining lives, costing billions of dollars, and pulling down the ability of the United States to compete with the rest of the world.

Millions of Americans are functionally illiterate. That includes some 25,000 adults over age 25 in Utah. It means they read below the fourth-grade level, if they read at all.Every year, U.S. high schools graduate 700,000 youngsters who are functionally illiterate. Another 700,000 drop out before they get get that far. Other industrialized countries are doing a far better job teaching students to read. The United States is now ranked only 49th in the world among literate nations.

The old pick and shovel jobs, the low-skill employment and factory jobs requiring little education are becoming extinct. This is becoming an "information age" calling for a high degree of literacy. The U.S. Labor Department says most jobs in the future will require at least two years beyond high school.

Speaking to newspaper publishers meeting in Chicago this week, David T. Kearns, chief executive officer of Xerox Corp., said that if current trends continue, American business can expect to hire a million people a year who have to be trained in the basics just to hold an entry-level job. By "basics," he meant minimal levels of reading, writing and simple math.

First Lady Barbara Bush, speaking at the same gathering, urged more attention be paid to family literacy. Parents who can't read are likely to raise children who cannot read or write, either.

This is the approach the Deseret News, together with KBYU, Channel 11, and KTVX, Channel 4, has been engaged in since September in a "Read to Succeed" project encouraging families to read together to promote literacy.

There have been reading contests, special TV broadcasts, and a variety of school programs aimed at children and illiterate adults. The campaign will culminate May 13 with two one-hour shows on KBYU. The first show at 1 p.m. will provide families with information on how to promote reading in their homes. The second show at 6 p.m. will take a hard look at the reasons behind illiteracy in Utah and offer possible solutions.

People who can read tend to shrug off the problems of those who cannot. But illiteracy is going to lower the standard of living of all Americans and raise the social welfare costs to all taxpayers unless the problem is solved.