3. Socioeconomic Factors and Literacy: How Access to Books Matters

Seeking to serve children and families from diverse backgrounds in the Detroit area, Rx for Reading approaches literacy as a social justice issue. In developing strong literacy skills, children from low-income families face significant challenges compared to their peers from higher-income families. The academic achievement gap between children from different income classes has widened steadily over the past fifty years, making income alone a much stronger predictor of a child’s academic success than it once was (Reardon 19-22; Tavernise). There are several possible factors that contribute to this gap. Children in higher-income families more often enjoy life conditions conducive to learning, including good nutrition and secure housing (Annie E. Casey Foundation; Noll and Watkins). Higher-income families may have more material resources available to support children’s academic pursuits, including access to quality daycares, preschools, schools, tutors, and other enriching programs (Reardon 19-22). They also have the resources to support children’s learning during the summer, when students are most vulnerable to losing knowledge and skills gained during the previous school year (Bridges). In higher-income families, parents are more likely to be well educated themselves. They tend to have informational resources that make them aware of the importance of children’s cognitive development and aware of strategies for fostering it, such as talking with and reading to young children (Lahey). Additionally, high-income families are more likely to be two-parent families, which is correlated with children’s academic achievement (Tavernise). In part because black and Hispanic families are disproportionately more likely to have lower incomes compared to white families, children of color are also more likely to struggle with academic achievement (Murnane, et al.).

Literacy in children from low-income families suffers from these factors. Evaluated by the standards of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 82% of fourth-graders from from low-income families are not proficient in reading (Annie E. Casey Foundation). Inequalities begin early: children from low-income families hear on average 30 million fewer words by age five compared with their more affluent peers (Lahey). Only 53% of children in general are read to daily by a family member, but this number is much lower for impoverished children (National Education Association). Low-income children are also less likely to have had “non-reading” experiences that support reading by providing breadth of knowledge, such as traveling and visiting museums (Murnane, et al.). The effects of these inequalities are evident in Detroit, where 59% of children live in poverty: more than half of the fourth-graders in the city are not proficient readers (“Detroit Background Information”; “Detroit, Michigan (MI) Poverty Rate Data”).

The causes of poor literacy among low-income children are complex. But simple access to books is one of the biggest obstacles–and perhaps the biggest opportunity–in equalizing children’s literacy. The number of books in a child’s home has been shown to be the best predictor of his or her scores on reading exams. Yet, 61% of low-income families do not own any children’s books (Bridges; Children’s Literacy Foundation). Areas with high levels of poverty have been characterized as “book deserts”: a 2001 study, for example, found that in one poor community in Philadelphia, there was only one children’s book for every 300 children (Wong). Making books available to children from low-income backgrounds can have a significant effect in improving their literacy skills and academic potential. Families with higher educational backgrounds and more money are more likely to own children’s books to begin with. But when low-income families do have access to children’s books, the effects can be profound. As one group of researchers asserts, “It is at the bottom, where books are rare, that each additional book matters most, not among the literate elite,” as “each additional book yields more ‘bang for your book’ among the book-poor than among the book-rich” (Evans, et al.  17). Regardless of income or parents’ educational background, the study asserts, “growing up in a home with 500 books would propel a child 3.2 years further in education, on average, than would growing up in an otherwise similar home with few or no books” (9).

Programs like Rx for Reading that provide age-appropriate, high-quality books to children have indeed been shown to have “positive behavioral, educational, and psychological outcomes” in children’s lives; book recipients have improved reading skills, read more and for longer periods of time, and develop better attitudes toward reading and learning (Learning Point Associates). Providing children with books, which has a relatively low cost and a high impact, is thus one of the most promising avenues available to us for promoting literacy among all children and teens.

Bibliography and Recommended Reading