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Published in Print: February 9, 2000, as 'Book Stamps' Proposed For Poor Families With Children

'Book Stamps' Proposed For Poor Families With Children

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A leading Senate Democrat is proposing to help nourish young minds with a plan that would provide "book stamps"—inspired by the federal food stamp program—for low-income families with small children.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, announced the idea in a speech delivered here last month to the Center for National Policy.


For More Information

Read the full text of Sen. Kennedy's speech.

"One of the most important factors in the early achievement of literacy by young children is home access to books," he said. "Food for the mind is as important as food for the body."

The proposal quickly caught the attention of the book-publishing industry, whose principal trade group, the Association of American Publishers, said that the initiative would be a high priority on its legislative agenda this year.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., is promoting the plan.
--Benjamin Tice Smith

"If we get kids hooked early on in life as readers, as an industry we're going to flourish, and as a nation we're going to flourish," AAP spokeswoman Judith Platt said.

An aide to Sen. Kennedy, who asked not to be named, said details of the proposal were still being worked out. But the basic idea is for low-income families to receive book stamps that they could redeem at bookstores, book fairs, and elsewhere to purchase books for their children age 5 or younger.

The plan, which is expected to be unveiled formally in the coming weeks, would likely cost about $100 million a year, the aide said. It would borrow some ideas from the federal food stamp program.

That program began as a pilot project in 1961 and was mandated nationwide in 1973. Operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it subsidizes the purchase of food by low-income families, with benefits distributed through a formula under which families with lower incomes and larger households receive the most benefits.

In fiscal 1999, the program cost roughly $17.7 billion, and in an average month served 18.2 million people in 7.7 million households, according to Phil Shanholtzer, a spokesman for the USDA.

Too Complicated?

While the food stamp program enjoys bipartisan support, it is unclear whether the book-stamps concept will attract the needed backing of Republican lawmakers.

"We haven't seen the proposal as of yet," Joe Karpinski, the spokesman for Republicans on the Senate HELP Committee, said last week. "I think it's too early to tell."

Meanwhile, some advocates for libraries, while not necessarily opposed to the idea, suggested that stepping up federal support for their institutions might be a way to reach more children more efficiently.

"I'm not against anything that stimulates parents to read to children," Mary R. Costabile, the associate director of the Washington office of the American Library Association, said when asked about Mr. Kennedy's idea. "[But] this sounds like it might be a little complicated."

Many public libraries have created programs to reach out to families with young children, Ms. Costabile said. "For me, [such initiatives] would go further because you could share the books with a wider group of people," she said.

Vol. 19, Issue 22, Page 28

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