What's the No. 1 problem facing millions of unemployed Americans when they pick up the want ads to look for a job? It's not necessarily a lack of marketable skills, but the inability to read what the ads are saying.

Although many refuse to admit their plight, it's now estimated that 23 million Americans are defined as functionally illiterate--unable to read, write or perform simple math problems well enough to function normally in our society. According to one recent study, 14 percent of the adult population can't write a check clearly enough for it to clear a bank; 28 percent can't calculate the correct amount of change they should receive after making a purchase at a dime store.

Despite almost 100 years of formal attempts to stamp out adult illiteracy in America, it looms larger than ever before. One great obstacle in combating illiteracy is changing public opinion to allow people to admit their problem and seek help.

Not being able to read is seen as a plague by many, an indication of even greater deficiencies. "I've told friends," one functional illiterate said, " . . . the next thing I know, they go out of their way to explain things to me, they start pointing this out to me that they didn't use to point out to me . . . before you know it, you're being treated as a kid."

In addition to the emotional cost of functional illiteracy, there are real economic consequences for those afflicted with it. According to one study, people who can't read earn $4,000 per year less than their counterparts who can.

Functional illiteracy is costly to society as a whole. An estimated $6.7 billion in federal social spending programs and $6 billion in lost production is the estimated cost this year.

If parents can't read, the odds are greater that their children will carry the costly stigma of illiteracy as well. We are worried that Johnny can't read, but what about Johnny's parents?

However, there are places where adults can go to seek help, and frequently it's the children who motivate them. "Parents come to us because they don't want their kids to find out they can't read," says Diane Kansigger, executive director of the Literacy Volunteers of New York City. "They want to help their kids with their homework and read their report cards."

Many private and state groups are already tackling the problem of functional illiteracy. One especially promising approach is to give college students academic credit for teaching functional illiterates. Under a program developed by the Washington Education Project, college students are directed to existing agencies and institutions whose populations need the individualized attention this program offers.

Norman Manasa, who directs the Washington Education Project, says, "If one percent of the nation's 10 million college students (teaching six hours per week for 10 weeks) enrolled in these courses, they would produce 6 million hours of tutoring each semester, and at no cost to the community."

Business and industry groups are recognizing that a literate adult population is in their best interest as well. It's not surprising that some of the most concerned companies have been publishers and newspapers. In many cities, newspapers are distributed free to elementary and secondary students to help them read what interests them most--and to develop a loyal readership in the future as well.

B. Dalton, a national chain of book stores has enlisted everyone in its organization, from CEO to janitor, to go ino the community and teach people to read. The corporation recently pledged $3 million over the next four years to fight illiteracy. It is encouraged with its successes so far, and is looking for new corporate partners in its literacy campaign. These efforts serve the best interests of their sponsors; IBM, ITT and other corporate giants would benefit from such of corporate largess by having a more literate work force to draw from.

While the bulk of education policy-making and funding has traditionally been left to the states, the federal government does have a role to play in this important issue.

Together with Barbara Bush, Rep. Paul Simon of Illinois and others, I have joined in a bipartisan Initiative on Adult Illiteracy. Briefly, here are its basic goals:

To raise public awareness of the scope of the problem.

To recognize those programs that are currently working effectively, and use the Department of Education to help complement these efforts.

To encourage state and local entities to organize. The department's office of Intergovernment Affairs will work with each governor's office to match funds with needs and to encourage more programs.

To urge colleges and universities to encourage their students to become involved in the program.

To set up special programs to assist the handicapped. We must not forget that there are handicapped persons who are functionally illiterate.

To seek help from federal employees through the Federal Interagency Committee on Education. There are working volunteer literacy programs, such as Literacy Volunteers, based in Syracuse, N.Y., that give private citizens a chance to help.

Organization of a formal outreach program to involve associations and volunteer organizations in promoting public/private sector coordination.

Only by changing the opinions of those who can read and write adequately will we be able to make progress in the fight against illiteracy.

The writer is a Republican representative from Missouri and ranking minority member of the subcommittee on post-secondary education. policy-making and funding has traditionally been left to the states, the federal government does have a role to play in this important issue.

Together with Barbara Bush, Rep. Paul Simon of Illinois and others, I have joined in a bipartisan Initiative on Adult Illiteracy. Briefly, here are its basic goals:

To raise public awareness of the scope of the problem.

To recognize those programs that are currently working effectively, and use the Department of Education to help complement these efforts.

To encourage state and local entities to organize. The department's office of Intergovernment Affairs will work with each governor's office to match funds with needs and to encourage more programs.

To urge colleges and universities to encourage their students to become involved in the program.

To set up special programs to assist the handicapped. We must not forget that there are handicapped persons who are functionally illiterate.

To seek help from federal employees through the Federal Interagency Committee on Education. There are working volunteer literacy programs, such as Literacy Volunteers, based in Syracuse, N.Y., that give private citizens a chance to help.

Organization of a formal outreach program to involve associations and volunteer organizations in promoting public/private sector coordination.

Only by changing the opinions of those who can read and write adequately will we be able to make progress in the fight against illiteracy.