To address income inequality, start with libraries

CRAIN’S NEW YORK December 2, 2015 This week, New York City’s three library systems testified before the City Council about how they are spending the significant increase in operating funds granted in the current budget. The underlying question is: Was this a wise investment?

I am a librarian in East New York, one of the highest-crime neighborhoods in New York City. Improving the quality of life in this community can seem like an impossible feat. Yet in less than a year, the infusion of city and private funds into our library branch has done just that. The past year has shown that funding for libraries is a down payment on fighting income inequality—a small investment with a major return, and one that we must continue to make.

Here in my end of Brooklyn, nearly 40% of children live in poverty. About three-quarters of households don’t earn enough to feed their families without food stamps. Our seniors struggle as well, with 39% living at or below the poverty level. There are no fewer than seven homeless shelters in our neighborhood.

When we look at these statistics, it’s clear that addressing poverty in our community is not simple. But public libraries have the ability to truly transform lives by serving people at all stages of their lives, in a variety of ways, for free.

At the New Lots branch in East New York, I see this every day. We lend books that open people’s minds and hearts. We help new immigrants become citizens and learn English. We assist people in finding jobs, getting health care, learning new technology skills, or simply connecting to the Internet if they can’t afford it at home. Seniors come here to find community, and children to read their first words. For teens, it’s not just a place to get homework help—it’s a safe space to escape the sometimes dangerous world outside our doors.

We are our community’s extended family. When a mother had to escape domestic violence and enter a homeless shelter last year, our library was there to help. We watch out for her kids while she’s at work. They are all engaged in age-appropriate programming at the library after school. She can be confident her children are in a safe, learning environment while she works to improve their situation.

Libraries are our city’s unsung heroes. We do a lot with a little—but we can do a lot more when given the resources we need, whether from the city budget or private benefactors. That’s why the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and Charles H. Revson Foundation launched the NYC Neighborhood Library Awards, to recognize and reward public libraries for all they do to uplift their communities. Through December 18, New Yorkers can nominate their library for exceptional service, and the winning branches will each receive $20,000 to put back into library programs and upgrades.

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[Written by Edwin Maxwell, librarian at the New Lots library]