Alia Wong is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers education and families. She previously wrote for Honolulu Civil Beat.
In many high-poverty urban neighborhoods, it’s nearly impossible for a poor child to find something to read in the summer.
Forty-five million. That’s how many words a typical child in a white-color family will hear before age 4. The number is striking, not because it’s a lot of words for such a small human—the vast majority of a person’s neural connections, after all are formed by age 3—but because of how it stacks up against a poor kid’s exposure to vocabulary. By the time she’s 4, a child on welfare might only have heard 13 million words.
This disparity is well-documented. It’s the subject of myriad news stories and government programs, as well as the Clinton Foundation’s “Too Small to Fail” initiative, all of which send the message that low-income parents should talk and read to their children more. But these efforts to close the “word gap” often overlook a fundamental problem. In high-poverty neighborhoods, books—the very things that could supply so many of those 30 million-plus words—are hard to come by. In many poor homes, they’re nonexistent.
“Book reading really provides the words the children need to learn,” said Susan Neuman, a childhood- and literacy-education researcher at New York University who served as the assistant education secretary under George W. Bush. “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.”
In 2001, Neuman co-authored a study that found that in a middle-class community in Philadelphia, each child had access to 13 books. In a community of concentrated poverty in the same city, on the other hand, there was only a single age-appropriate book per 300 kids—or about 33 titles total, all of which were coloring books. Now, she’s out with a new study, published this month in the journal Urban Education, that helps paint a clearer picture of the nation’s “book deserts,” finding intense disparities in access to children’s reading resources in Detroit, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.—even between a very poor neighborhood and a slightly-less-poor one within a given city.
Neuman and her co-author on the new study, Naomi Moland, an assistant professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, walked and biked the streets of two neighborhoods in each of the aforementioned cities, meticulously combing each block for businesses selling print resources for kids of any age, including fiction and nonfiction books and newspapers. Overall, they found just 75 such stores—or about 2 percent of all the businesses in those neighborhoods—selling print resources for children ages 0 through 18; many of them were dollar stores. And especially after breaking down the data by neighborhood and age group, it became clear: Children’s books are a rarity in high-poverty urban communities. The likelihood that a parent could find a book for purchase in these areas, Neuman and Moland write, “is very slim.”
Take D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood, where nearly all the population is black and 61 percent of children live in poverty. When the research was conducted in the summer of 2014, it didn’t have a single store selling a book for preschoolers, and there were only five books available for kids in grades K-12. In other words, 830 children would have to share a single book in the impoverished Washington neighborhood. “Book stores in the U.S. are becoming a rare bird, but [in places like this], there are no bookstores at all,” Neuman said. “How do you become literate when there are no available resources?”
The new study adds to a growing body of research demonstrating how income-based housing segregation undermines the prospects of America’s youngest citizens, with the rich leaving “the poor and the near poor to scramble for resources that would have otherwise benefited a larger share of the population,” Neuman and Moland write. But it also shows the nuanced ways in which poverty shapes the country’s communities—how drastically access to something as basic as a book can change from one neighborhood to another just a short drive away. Neighborhoods with 40 percent or more of their residents living in poverty have grown at troubling rates in the last few decades, but so have areas known as “borderline” neighborhoods, in which 20 percent to 40 percent of people live in poverty.
Just a couple of miles north of Anacostia, for example, in the borderline Washington neighborhood known as Capitol Hill, Neuman and Moland found more than 2,000 children’s print resources in stores—i.e., a book for every two kids. While still equipped with relatively few reading resources, the borderline neighborhoods the researchers studied, overall, had 16 times as many books as their high-poverty counterparts.
Equating access to books with access to stores that sell books is hardly perfect, but it makes a good deal of sense when considering the existing data on the book habits and day-to-day realities of low-income families. 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.
Meanwhile, even though parents could in theory easily order books for their kids from online stores like Amazon, a perhaps surprising percentage of low-income families lack access to high-speed internet at home—a little over half of those with children under 8, according to a 2013 study. And only 61 percent of poor families with young children, according to the same study, have internet-enabled mobile devices. That means the presence of brick-and-mortar stores where books are sold can be critical, especially during the summer months when poor children aren’t in school and lose many of the academic skills they developed over the previous year.
As with exposure to vocabulary, access to books can have both immediate and longer-term impacts on a child’s academic and socioeconomic outcomes. Living in a book desert “may seriously constrain young children’s opportunities to come to school ‘ready to learn,’” Neuman and Moland write. A lack of access to books may help explain why, according to some research, children from economically disadvantaged communities score 60 percent lower on kindergarten-readiness tests that assess kids’ familiarity with knowledge as basic as sounds, colors, and numbers. And researchers say living in a book desert in one’s early years can have psychological ripple effects: “When there are no books, or when there are so few that choice is not an option, book reading becomes an occasion and not a routine,” they write.
According to Neuman, who, as the assistant education secretary under Bush, was in charge of implementing No Child Left Behind, the stalled achievement rates of the country’s children show that more emphasis needs to be placed on what happens in their lives outside of schools. “We have seen that No Child Left Behind was an effort to really improve schools while ignoring parent education,” she said. “What we realize is that children are out of school more than they’re in it.” Contrary to the conventional assumption that academic interventions can only happen in school, she continued, some of the most critical factors in kids’ achievement involve family and environment.
Ultimately, giving kids access to books may be one of the most overlooked solutions to helping ensure kids attend school with the tools they need to succeed. As an experiment, Neuman and her team—with funding from JetBlue, which also helped fund her latest research—set up a vending machine in a busy area in Anacostia last summer where kids could pick up books for free. Within six weeks, according to Neuman, 27,000 books were given away. “It’s designed to say to people, ‘strike down that notion that these people don’t care about their children’—they deeply care,” she said. “What they lack are the resources to enable their children to be successful.”
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.