Why Book Drives Matter

Why Book Drives Matter

May 19, 2017

Written by Jim McLaughlin, Education Portfolio Manager at United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County

Kids love books and we do too! In the last year, United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County has given away tens of thousands of free books to students across our region through our Readers United initiative.

But what good do book giveaways do? After all, everyone knows the adage, “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for life.” So is “feeding” kids free books really enough to make a big difference in helping kids read?


Research suggests that access to books make a lifelong impact on kids’ educational outcomes. Mix in some tutoring and other intervention and enrichment programs for students (like the $7.6 million United Way grants to more than 35 different education programs and initiatives), and we can ensure that kids get the help they need to thrive.

Here are some facts:

  • A 20-year study showed children with as few as 20 books at home completed significantly more school than kids with fewer books. And the more books, the better: 500 books at home yielded 2.4 years more school for U.S. children, and the effect is greater for disadvantaged families.
  • How important is 2.4 years more of schooling? Consider that the median worker with a high school diploma earns $8,700 more per year than a dropout, an associate’s degree or some college earns $6,700 more than a diploma, and a bachelor’s degree earns $16,600 more than an associate’s. That suggests two and half years could be enough to finish an educational credential and earn more to support a family.
  • The more kids read for fun on their own time, the higher their test scores tend to be in both reading and math. Since United Way book giveaways let students choose the books they like most, we believe they’ll be more likely to read them for fun, and perhaps even trade books with their friends once they’ve finished.
  • In our four-county region, fewer than one in four economically disadvantaged students read proficiently. Perhaps not surprisingly, in United Way-led Community Conversations teachers expressed their desire for their students to have access to new books to take home to inspire them to read more often.

There’s lots of evidence that books are a powerful force for good for students. But even though books are great, it takes more than books to teach a child to read. As a former teacher, I know all too well that it takes a massive amount of work from skilled educators to teach kids to read well, and a slew of other supports (like providing water filters for lead-contaminated homes, or clinical services for children and parents with disabilities) so families can create an environment that lets kids learn.

That’s why the United Way Community Fund invests tens of millions of dollars into more than 200 programs that fight for the education, health, and financial stability of everyone in our community.

Feeling inspired? Help students in Waukesha pick out free books at the next Build My Bookshelf event.

U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2009
U.S. Department of Education. 1999. The Condition of Education 1998.
Educational Testing Service, 1999. America's Smallest School: The Family.



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