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First Food Deserts, Now Book Deserts, Deprive Poor Students, Study Finds

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For years child welfare advocates warned of the dangers of poor neighborhoods with little access to nutritious foods. So what happens when poor young children have equally little access to "food for the mind"?

In a new study in the journal Urban Education, New York University researchers mapped areas with limited access to children's books—or much of any print reading material, really—in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. 

"This is one of the reasons we might see the summer slide," said Susan B. Neuman, study co-author and education professor at the professor at New York University Steinhardt. "Once school let out, there were virtually no cognitive opportunities for these kids ... in access to print during the summer."

In six urban neighborhoods in Detroit, Los Angeles, and Washington, Neuman and co-author Naomi Moland matched neighborhoods with concentrated poverty with nearby but more mixed-income neighborhoods; for example, Anacostia and Capitol Hill in Washington, or Vermont Square and the University District in Detroit.

The researchers tracked nearly 3,200 businesses in walking distance within those neighborhoods, including 75 that sold print materials, from book stores and department stores to dollar stores or thrift shops. They found many times fewer books available for sale per 1,000 children in high-poverty neighborhoods compared to more mixed-income neighborhoods:

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Washington's Anacostia, just a few miles from the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian museums, had the least access to reading materials: Researchers found only five books—Spanish-language dictionaries—in a single CVS drug store.

There are libraries in all three cities, but, "Many of these families, you ask them and they have thousands of dollars in library fines, and they are worried about the issues of privacy," said Neuman, who specializes in early literacy research. "People who are on the edge of being insolvent are scared of having and owning a library card."

This may seem an outdated concern, given the bounty of free children's books, songs, and other educational materials on the Internet, but children in both urban and rural poverty remain significantly less likely to be able to access the Internet at home

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Building Access to Books

In a follow-up study, Neuman and her colleagues are using vending machines that offer free books to parents every two weeks. So far, the project has distributed more than 27,000 books in Detroit and Washington, and the researchers plan to track levels of summer slide this fall in children whose parents used the vending machines over the summer.

Neuman said she believes increasing access to book shops and vending could be more effective at encouraging parent-child reading than simply handing out books because "that's often a handout," she said. "But people are standing [in line for the book vending machines] talking with their kids about what book they want to get. It's about choice."

Photos: Parents in Washington's Anacostia neighborhood wait in line for a vending machine of free children's books which is restocked twice a month. A new study suggests such vending systems can help alleviate "book deserts." Source: Susan Neuman

Chart: Mixed-income neighborhoods had anywhere from hundreds to nearly 1,000 more books available per 1,000 children than high-poverty neighborhoods. Source: Urban Education, Susan Neuman

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