‘Book Deserts’ Leave Low-Income Kids With Nothing to Read

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Photo: Mike Dunning

Last summer, a handful of vending machines began popping up in Anacostia, a Washington, D.C., neighborhood, with unusual contents: not soda, not snacks, but children’s books. And they had an unusual price, too: free.

The vending machines were a part of Soar With Reading, a program sponsored by JetBlue to get books into the hands of kids who might not otherwise have much access to reading material during the break from school. Last year was the pilot; by the end of the summer, more than 27,000 books had been given away. (The program relaunched in Anacostia at the beginning of this month.)

“We wanted to give the notion that proprietors should have books in their neighborhoods,” says Susan Neuman, an education professor and literacy specialist at NYU who worked on the project. Even in an area devoid of bookstores, “families often buy books in dollar stores, they buy them in drugstores, in supermarkets.”

If the stores stock them, that is. If you’ve read anything about nutrition, you’ve likely heard of food deserts, typically low-income areas where access to healthy food is scarce, and where fast-food restaurants often outnumber grocery stores. In recent years, education researchers have begun to apply the same concept to books: as nourishing as fruits and veggies, in their own way, and often just as scarce. In a study recently published in the journal Urban Education, Neuman and her colleague Naomi Moland, an assistant professor at Columbia’s Teachers’ College, outlined the problem of “book deserts”: neighborhoods where it’s difficult or impossible for a kid to find something to read.

The study authors surveyed neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Detroit, and Washington, D.C., in each case choosing one high-poverty area (where more than 40 percent of residents lived below the poverty line) and one adjacent area of more mixed income, or what the researchers called “borderline” neighborhoods. They then went block by block, checking out each business that looked like it might have “print resources” (books, newspapers, magazines) and counting up what they found inside.

Neuman had headed up a similar study in 2001, looking at one affluent and one high-poverty neighborhood in Philadelphia, with dramatically disparate results — in that study, the wealthier area had around 13 books for sale for each kid, while the poorer area had one book for every 300 children.

But even in this latest paper, comparing neighborhoods with less dramatic income gaps, the difference was still stark. On average, the borderline neighborhoods had 16 times as many books per child as their high-poverty neighbors. And public libraries, which Neuman describes as “the only safety net in some of our high-poverty communities,” often don’t actually do much to alleviate the scarcity: Past research has found that as few as 8 percent of low-income families have taken advantage of their local library branches, largely because of inconvenient hours or concern over possible fines.

Of the three cities Neuman and Moland looked at, the most sizeable gap was in D.C. – in one sweep of Anacostia, where 61 percent of kids live in poverty, the researchers found no books for preschool-aged kids, and just five children’s books overall, all of them Spanish dictionaries. “It tells you that a parent couldn’t conceivably say, ‘Hey, I’d like to buy a book for my kid’ in that neighborhood,” Neuman says. By contrast, nearby Capitol Hill, with a 21 percent child-poverty rate, had more than 2,000, including nearly 700 for preschool-aged kids.

These disparities are particularly critical during the summer months, when kids are out of school: reading, or being read to, is a key part of combatting the so-called “summer slide,” when children lose knowledge gained during the year. Increased access to books is also one defense against the word gap, or the different vocabulary sizes of rich kids and poor kids: By age 3, research has shown, wealthier children have heard tens of millions more words than their less affluent peers.

But focusing solely on expanding kids’ vocabulary “is rather simplistic,” Neuman says. Reading, or being read to, also helps them develop skills “like being able to listen to a story, being able to respond to a story, that are even more important than conversation, because conversation is colloquial language. These children need to come to school with a more academic language — the language of stories, of books. They need to come to school with alphabetic skills, understanding the sound structure of our language.”

When they have books at home, “you can see children [pay attention], you can hear them repeat the story or reiterate parts of the story” in class, she adds. “I can tell, when I go into schools in New York, which kids have been read to and which haven’t.”

‘Book Deserts’ Leave Low-Income Kids With Nothing to Read