Study after study has shown that children from poor families, especially those living below the poverty line, tend not to perform as well as children from wealthier families. There have been a lot of arguments to explain this, and it’s not uncommon for those arguments to blame the kids or their families. Those arguments are not helpful.

Take, for example, the studies which show that disadvantaged kids don’t read enough or aren’t read to by their parents enough. Before the age of 4, most kids in white-color homes will hear about 45 million words, while kids growing up on welfare will hear about 13 million. According to some research, this is because they don’t have access to books, which is where most of our contact with words comes from, traditionally. It’s a well known problem, and there are numerous efforts to address it. But generally, those efforts and programs overlook the simple fact that these kids don’t have access to books–not because they’re families don’t care, but because they live in “book deserts.”

The concept of a book desert is similar to that of a food desert, which is predicated on the distance a person has to travel in order to find fresh food. If you can’t walk to a grocery store or market that sells fresh food, you live in a food desert. Same thing for books: if you can’t walk to a library or to a store that sells books, you’re in a book desert. And, not coincidentally, both of these are commonplace in underprivileged neighborhoods.

The answer to the “poor kids don’t read enough” problem? Improve access to books. That doesn’t just mean sell them online, because many poor people don’t have regular internet access. And it’s not enough to just open bookstores, because money for books can be hard to come by on welfare. It means finding ways to get kids books–and yes, that means for free–so they can increase their chances of success later in life. It’ll pay for itself over time.