Science of Giving: How Bernie’s Book Bank improves lives through literacy


Science of GivingBrittany Shoots-Reinhard has a PhD in social psychology with a specialization in attitudes and persuasion, and judgment and decision making. She is also Foundation Beyond Belief’s Beyond Belief Network coordinator.

When selecting featured beneficiaries, we pay a lot of attention to the effectiveness of an organization’s programming. When Bernie’s Book Bank, our current Education beneficiary, was first proposed, I was skeptical. They cite quite a bit of research on their website, but a lot of it was correlational. To briefly summarize it, children who have books in their home do better in school and are less likely to drop out or commit crimes. But there is a glaringly obvious confound: socioeconomic status (e.g., White, 1982). Wealthy people are more likely to have the money to buy books, but also the free time to read them and the ability to live in neighborhoods with great schools and resources. So is there any benefit to giving poor children books or is it more like slapping a band-aid on the problem?

Bernie's Book BankWell, it turns out that my concerns have been examined by literacy researchers. One troubling consequence of low socioeconomic status is the summer learning gap. Across a variety of studies (see Cooper et al., 1996, for a review), higher socioeconomic status (SES) students do much better than their low SES counterparts in retaining or even gaining reading ability over the summer (e.g., Entwhisle, Alexander & Olson, 1997; Heyns, 1975). This decline can be prevented by encouraging students to read. Summer reading programs are very effective (e.g., Schacter, 2003), but recreational reading is also a good tool (e.g., Krashen & Shin, 2004).

Unfortunately, poor children don’t have access to reading materials (e.g., Neuman & Celano, 2001), and even libraries serving low-income populations have smaller selections and less staff, and are generally worse than those in high-income neighborhoods (e.g., Di Loreto & Tse, 1999; Smith, Constantino & Krashen, 1999). As a result, Bernie’s Book Bank, with the help of Foundation Beyond Belief members, is supporting an extremely efficient way of combatting a variety of social problems simply by providing low-income students in Chicago with books. Additionally, they accept used books (here’s a list of drop sites in case you live in Chicago), so the money we donate will literally give hundreds of children thousands of books!

Cooper, H., Nye, B., Charlton, K., Lindsay, J. & Greathouse, S. (1996). The Effects of Summer Vacation on Achievement Test Scores: A Narrative and Meta-Analytic Review. Review of Educational Research, 66(3), 227-268.
Di Loreto, C. & Tse, L. (1999). Seeing is believing: Disparity in books in two Los Angeles area public libraries. School Library Quarterly, 17(3), 31-36
Downey, D., von Hippel, P. & Broh, B. (2004). Are Schools the Great Equalizer? Cognitive Inequality during the Summer Months and the School Year. American Sociological Review, 69, 613-635.
Heyns, B. (1978). Summer Learning and the effects of schooling. Orlando, FL: Academic.Press.
Krashen, S. & Shin, F. (2004). Summer Reading and the Potential Contribution of the Public Library in Improving Reading for Children of Poverty. Public Library Quarterly, 23, 3, 99.
Schacter, J. (2003). Preventing Summer Reading Declines in Children Who Are Disadvantaged. Journal of Early Intervention, 26(1), 47-58.
Smith, C., Constantino, R. & Krashen, S. (1996). Differences in print environment for children in Beverly Hills, Compton and Watts. Emergency Librarian, 24(4), 4-5.
White, K. (1982). The relation between socioeconomic status and academic achievement. Psychological Bulletin, 91, 461-481.