STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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Children's books are hard to find in low-income neighborhoods

two young kids reading a book
Thomas Life / Flickr CC /

What was your favorite book as a kid?

For me, it was Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. I’d take it with me to school, to sleepovers, to the park. I read it so many times that I can still recite some of the poems by heart. 

But for poor children, books aren’t so easy to come by.

In fact, many low-income neighborhoods are "book deserts," according to a recent studyby New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. Like food deserts, where fresh fruits and vegetables are in scarce supply, book deserts are places where it’s hard to buy children’s books.

The NYU study looked at six neighborhoods in three major U.S. metros:

  • Detroit
  • Washington D.C.
  • and Los Angeles
The poorer the neighborhood, the fewer children's books they found.

Researchers walked around neighborhoods, stopping in stores and counting the number of reading materials available for purchase. The poorer the neighborhood, the fewer children’s books they found.

In the city of Hamtramck, which borders Detroit, there was only one age-appropriate book available for every 42 children.

Having fewer books at home means that kids are less prepared when they start school.

We’ve talked before about the“word gap” here on State of Opportunity. Basically, low-income kids hear fewer words on a daily basis than their middle and upper-class peers. By the time they reach preschool, they’ve heard an average of 30 million fewer words. That means that from their very first day in the classroom, low-income students are already playing catch up.

But while the number of words children hear is important, the lack of access to print materials could be an even bigger obstacle to school readiness. Susan Neuman, who co-authored the NYU study, told theAtlantic

“Frankly, when you and I talk to our children, we’re talking in a baby-talk-like way—we’re not using sophisticated language. But even a very low-level preschool book like a Dr. Seuss book has more sophisticated vocabulary than oral discourse. So it’s really about the print gap and not the oral-word gap.”

Giving poor kids books could go a long way toward closing that gap.

And the good news is that there are a lot of organizations working to do just that. My colleague Paulette Parker highlighted a few of those here. And JetBlue airlines, which helped fund the NYU study, recently installed five book vending machinesthroughout Detroit neighborhoods. 

You might be thinking, “what about public libraries?”

While libraries are an important resource for many low-income communities, the reality is that they don’t reach every family. According to the Atlantic’s Alia Wong: 

Statistically, poor families are far less likely to utilize public libraries, whether it’s because they’re not acclimated to using them or because they’re worried about being charged late fines, or because they’re skeptical of putting their name on a card associated with a government entity. Neuman has found that only 8 percent of such families report they have taken advantage of library resources.

There’s also something special about having books with your name scribbled on the title page. Books you carry with you to sleepovers and on vacation. Books that you memorize by heart and recite to any adult willing to listen.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a house full of books to entertain and inspire me. Don't low-income children deserve the same? 

What ideas do you have about how to bring more books into low-income neighborhoods?  

April Van Buren is a producer for Stateside. She produces interviews for air as well as web and social media content for the show.
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