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Improving Access to Books in Poorer Neighborhoods

Posted on May 20, 2011

Research consistently shows the importance of access to reading materials for children, especially low-income children. A meta-analysis published last August by Reading is Fundamental found that access to print materials, and in particular access to print materials to own, improves children’s reading performance, helps children learn the basics of reading, causes children to read more and for longer lengths of time, and produces improved attitudes towards reading and learning. A recent report by the Annie E. Casey foundation found that children who were not reading proficiently in third grade are four times more likely to not graduate high school on time.

An 2001 study from the University of Michigan and Temple University comparing access to reading materials in low-income and middle-income urban neighborhoods found that while middle-income neighborhoods had as many as 13 book titles available for every child, low-income neighborhoods had as few as 1 title for every 300 children. Additionally, both public and school libraries in low-income neighborhoods had fewer hours and fewer books than libraries in middle-income neighborhoods. This finding follows an earlier study that found that classroom, school and public libraries combined in a high-income neighborhood had an average of nearly 261,000 books, while libraries in low-income neighborhoods had between 113,000 and 106,000 books.

However, the limited access to books in these neighborhoods does not indicate that parents are unwilling to buy books for their children. Susan B. Newman, a co-author of the 2001 study, said in a recent New York Times article “When poor people, even those at low literacy levels, have a little extra money, they will buy inexpensive books. But some families have so little disposable income, they can’t afford any books.”

The New York Times recently profiled an organization that works to increase the number of books in the homes of low-income children, First Book Marketplace. First Book Marketplace sells books discounted far below their retail prices to programs that serve low-income children. Their website shows classic titles such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Where the Wild Things Are, and A Very Hungry Caterpillar, as well as SAT preparatory materials and nonfiction, discounted by 50% or more.

A number of Schubert Center Faculty Associates study children in low-income households and literacy:

Additionally, the Schubert Center was privileged to host Nobel Prize Winner Dr. James Heckman of the University of Chicago in March 2010 for a lecture on the economic case for investing in early childhood education. A video of Dr. Heckman’s lecture as well as other resources related to his talk can be found from our website.

More information about First Book Marketplace can be found on their website.

For those interested in improving access to books in their communities, the Corporation for National and Community Service provides a toolkit for starting a book distribution team.

Page last modified: March 21, 2014