‘Book Deserts’ and the Consequences of Ideas

I just finished reading an intriguing and depressing article on “book deserts” in impoverished urban neighborhoods. The problem is even worse than you might imagine. “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.” All of which were coloring books. Considering the importance of reading for intellectual and spiritual development, it would be hard to exaggerate the degree to which these “book deserts” are stunting their inhabitants.

But where did the books go? The article describes a new study which tallied up the tiny collection of stores which sold children’s books in a few impoverished areas. “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.’… 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.'”

But are the poor actually scrambling for these particular resources? The article implies that all would be well if we could just get bookstores into poorer neighborhoods, but one might want to pause to consider why stores in poor neighborhoods do not bother stocking children’s books in the first place. As a rule, stores will sell anything their customers are interested in buying, and a cheap book costs about as much as a pack of cigarettes; it’s not as if we’re talking about luxury goods. And what about totally free books? The article notes in passing that poor families “are far less likely to utilize public libraries,” but does not seem to find that fact suggestive. Perhaps impoverished families do not have books, not because they have no way to get them, but because many poor parents have no interest in getting them.

Why might impoverished parents be less interested in reading? Perhaps because of a failing school system which leaves graduates semi-literate at best, making reading difficult and unpleasant for parents and children alike? What about an epidemic of single motherhood which leaves less time for children, and unstable family units which undermine the parent-child connections from which a love of reading can blossom? And TV and video games which provide much more addictive and easily accessible forms of entertainment, especially for kids who have no one to guide them elsewhere?

The point is not that we should cast all the blame on impoverished parents who think little of providing books for their children. Many of these barriers to reading are more or less outside their control and have disadvantaged them in just the same way they are disadvantaging their children. But the reality of these massive barriers to literacy does suggest two lessons.

First, simply dumping books into poor neighborhoods is unlikely to do much good. Uncle Sam can lead a child to a book, but he can’t make her read it. It’s the same frustrating lesson that the federal government learned after spending $500 million over the past five years trying to solve the problem of “food deserts” in many of these same neighborhoods. The conclusion? Simply getting nutritious, fresh food into supermarkets in poor neighborhoods had almost no positive effect on dietary choices. Rather, the USDA grudgingly admitted, “household and neighborhood resources, education, and taste preferences may be more important determinants of food choice than store proximity.”

Now, this doesn’t mean there is no point in trying. The article closes with a description of a “book vending machine” experiment which gave out thousands of books in Washington DC’s impoverished Anacostia neighborhood. Surely, at least some of those books made a difference in a child’s life! You would have to be a true Scrooge to be anything but delighted at the prospect of children learning to love reading through such an innovative program. But you would have to be quite a Pollyanna to imagine that a few free books can make much of a difference in a place where nothing promotes reading and much stands against it.

Which leads to the second lesson we should learn.

Ideas have consequences.

A couple generations ago, upper-class intellectuals decided that unrestricted sexual experience was the path to fulfillment and the nuclear family was an unnecessary hindrance to the nirvana which awaited if only we could kick off the shackles of repressive, Victorian morality. Fast forward to today, and nirvana is still pending but the nuclear family is on its way out, especially among the lower-income communities for whom family ties used to be one of their few protections against the shocks and challenges of an unsympathetic world.

For the writers and thinkers of the Sexual Revolution, marriage and the nuclear family were archaic burdens which could be accepted or not as preference dictated, but for a little six-year-old girl in Anacostia, they are the difference between whether or not she has someone to tuck her in tonight and read her a bedtime story.

Theodore Dalrymple served as a doctor in a British inner-city hospital. In “The Starving Criminal” he describes how family breakdown was the primary cause of the malnutrition associated with urban “food deserts,” but it is impossible to read his words and not think of “book deserts”… and many other kinds of deserts as well.

I examined him and said to him, “You don’t eat.”

“Not much,” he said. “I don’t feel like it.”

“And when you do eat, what do you eat?”

“Crisps [potato chips] and chocolate.”

This pattern, however, was not the heroin talking, as addicts sometimes put it. Rather, it was the story of his life.

He had never known his father, who had not even achieved the status of myth in his mind. His father’s existence was more of a logical deduction, the product of the syllogism that runs: all humans have fathers, I am a human, therefore I have a father. […]

I asked the young man whether his mother had ever cooked for him.

“Not since my stepfather arrived. She would cook for him, like, but not for us children.”

I asked him what they—he and his brothers and sisters—had eaten and how they had eaten it.

“We’d just eat whatever there was,” he said. “We’d look for something whenever we was hungry.”

“And what was there?”

“Bread, cereals, chocolate—that kind of thing.”

“So you never sat round a table and ate a meal together?”

“No.” […]

I meet at least one young man every week in the hospital with a similar story to relate. It is a story that angers and frustrates me. These young men’s malnutrition is the sign of an entire way of life, and not the result of raw, inescapable poverty. Another patient whom I saw soon after, similarly malnourished, told me that he ate practically nothing, subsisting on sugary soft drinks.

It never takes many links in a chain of reasoning to get from their smooth and raw magenta tongues to the kind of family breakdown favored by a certain ideology of human relations, encouraged by our laws and fiscal system, and made viable by welfare payments. It is the breakdown of the family structure—a breakdown so complete that mothers do not consider it part of their duty to feed their own children once they have reached the age at which they can forage for themselves in a refrigerator—that promotes modern malnutrition in Britain.

And which promotes modern illiteracy as well. Ideas have consequences, and those consequences are often borne by those who had nothing to do with the original idea. The prophets of the Sexual Revolution might not have anticipated that their ideas would one day leave “book deserts” among the urban poor, but they share the blame nonetheless. And their modern disciples must confront the fact that a book vending machine is cheap recompense for the human costs their ideas have borne.

Header photo by Kelly Sikkema under CC BY 2.0, cropped

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