Book Deserts and Their Effects

Feature Report:
“Book Deserts and Their Effects” — with citations and resources

Recording, 7/13/17, begins at 2:00 —

Over the past few years, the District has been one of three cities involved in a study of access to children’s books. NYU researchers compared two neighborhoods in each city: one with a poverty rate of 40% or over, and one with a borderline poverty rate of 18-40%. It’s probably no surprise that researchers found substantially greater book access in the borderline areas of all three cities. But the difference in DC was astonishingly large: In high-poverty Anacostia, home of We Act Radio, researchers found one age-appropriate book for every 830 children; while in the borderline area of Capitol Hill, just north of the river, the study found one such book for every two children. (Study links).

Lead author, Susan B. Neuman, warns that “’book deserts’ may seriously constrain young children’s opportunities to come to school ready to learn.” The report also notes that, while libraries provide many families with book access, reading achievement is linked to books in the home.

Book Ownership

Books at home are key, especially in the earliest years, in helping children develop vocabulary, knowledge, and comprehension skills.

In addition, studies consistently find that children who own books read for pleasure more than those who don’t, and that reading for pleasure is a strong predictor of academic success.

Conversely, children who don’t own any books – and two-thirds of children living in poverty have no books in their homes:

  • enjoy reading less;
  • read fewer books,
  • read less frequently, and for shorter times when they do so;
  • are twice as likely to agree they only read when they must; and
  • have lower reading levels than their age-mates. (citation)

I am sure many readers join me in wondering, about the chicken-and-egg nature of this situation, however: Does owning books actually foster reading enjoyment, or is it the other way around? And aren’t other factors, associated with poverty, at work here?

To help find an answer, Dr. Jesse Turner, Director of the Central Connecticut State Literacy Center and a friend of the Education Town Hall, pointed me to the work of Steven Kashen, professor emeritus at USC with decades of experience in the field.

Kashen reports that book access and poverty are related but separate. On the one hand, “Children who live in poverty have fewer books in their homes, sometimes none. Fewer books in their neighborhood, fewer bookstores…inferior classroom libraries and school libraries.” HOWEVER, Kashen continues, reading ability is affected by book access independently of poverty. Giving children access to books can actually balance the effects of poverty: “Poor children don’t read well, because they don’t have access
to books. You give them books, they do better.” (clear, helpful 5-minute presentation)

Literacy and Crime, Prison

An article in The Atlantic a few years back debunked the oft-repeated notion that 3rd-grade reading scores are used to determine future prison spending. Nonetheless, this urban legend speaks to an important truth: “There is a connection between literacy rates, high school dropout rates, and crime… poor reading skills are connected with unfavorable life outcomes,” says the national non-profit Reading Partners.

See “An urban myth that should be true” in The Atlantic, and
Reading Partners’ blog: 3rd Grade and Prison Beds

The American Bar Association (see, e.g.), U.S. Department of Justice, and many others who work on public safety matters concur. 85% of juveniles in the court system are functionally illiterate, and 70% of prison inmates cannot read above the 4th grade level. (Statistics)

Look for more on this topic as We Act Radio prepares to launch the Charnice Milton Community Bookstore. Named for an East of the River colleague, the young journalist and book lover who was shot to death in 2015 – this new bookstore, to be housed at the We Act Radio studio, will be the first east of the river source of children’s books in many years, seeking to address this book desert and its effects in the community. For more on this effort and related resources, do be sure to visit #WeLuvBooks: Charnice Milton Community Bookstore website.


NYU Study Links
NYU’s 2016 summary
See also news stories in The Atlantic and USA News.
Mid-study story on the Kojo Nnamdi program
BACK to top

Book Ownership Citation:
Clark, C and Poulton, L. (2011). Book ownership and its relation to reading enjoyment, attitudes, behaviour and attainment. London: National Literacy Trust. (PDF )

See also (not cited): Books in the Home and
Home Library Size, both in the Pacific Standard
BACK to story

Statistics compilations of use:
Begin to Read


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