Increase the Earning Power of Your Children

Want your children to go further in their education—high school, college, maybe more? Want them to earn more as adults? Here’s one key predictor of educational attainment and earning power. Is it IQ? Is it economic status?

No, it’s the number of books in the home. That’s the finding of a 20-year study conducted in over twenty-seven nations and published in the June 2010 issue of Research in Social Stratification and Mobility. The conventional wisdom among researchers has been that the education of parents was the key factor. But having as few as twenty books in the home can have a significant impact. Having five hundred books means children will on average pursue two to six years more education depending on the country.

Researcher Mariah Evans said, “You get a lot of ‘bang for your book.’ It’s quite a good return-on-investment in a time of scarce resources.”

What was the bang for the book in my household? I grew up in a home with books. Not a lot of books, but enough. My brother and I had bookshelves above our beds, lined with a few dozen volumes. We had bookshelves in the basement holding mass market paperbacks and a few somewhat more sophisticated titles.

And I remember the day the encyclopedia salesman came to our home. We received a special bookcase for the two dozen or so volumes of the 1957 (or maybe it was 1959) edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. And yes, from time to time, for school reports but also out of idle curiosity, I found myself pawing through those volumes as a grade schooler.

Did it make a difference in how much education my siblings and I ended up with? While our dad completed college and our mother didn’t, my sister and I both did. My brother made up for the two of us by finishing not one but two advanced degrees, a Ph.D. first (in Old Testament), followed by a Masters (in computer science). So maybe there was something to the books in our house.

Now, the study would be validated even further if editing just paid more.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

14 thoughts on “Increase the Earning Power of Your Children”

  1. Yes! A highly persuasive justification for buying more books which includes the right mix of empirical data measurement and psychological motivation.

  2. As I mentioned earlier, this only pertains to “real” books, not ebooks. The books need to be on physical shelves, stacked on the floor, piled on tables. It will make no impression at all if they occupy something the size of a soap dish or a dinner plate! That will hardly get your kids through junior high.

  3. hmm.. looks like a good example of the difference between association and causation…. more books in the book correlates with higher level of education of parents with correlates with likely more attentiveness toward children’s education, opportunities and genetics… therefore, buying more books is unlikely to actually cause an increased earning power. but, if you have a bunch of books in your house, you are more likely to have kids with higher earning power.

  4. Oh, if I had only forwarded this post to my wife before John’s comments (above). Nevertheless, for the sake of the children (highly persuasive in my Asian household), I may stop at Borders on my way home. (We’re raising our children in urban NYC so it’s imperative (I’m sure) to have a few hundred extra books to make up for (potentially) uneven educational experiences.)

    Thanks, Andy!

  5. “But having as few as twenty books in the home can have a significant impact.”

    did the study find causation, or mere correlation? because i really doubt having these books in the home causes higher levels of education or affects earning power. my guess is the two are merely related because the kind of family who would keep lots of books in the home are also the kind of family who might value education, have more money, have two parents in the home, or any other hundreds of factors that would actually provide us with causation.

  6. This was a massive and very careful study. You can check it out at the links provided. The researchers were well aware of the issues about causation and correlation. As reported, “Being a sociologist, Evans was particularly interested to find that children of lesser-educated parents benefit the most from having books in the home. . . . The researchers were struck by the strong effect having books in the home had on children’s educational attainment even above and beyond such factors as education level of the parents, the country’s GDP, the father’s occupation or the political system of the country. Having books in the home is twice as important as the father’s education level, and more important than whether a child was reared in China or the United States.”

  7. I haven’t read the study but if the researchers controlled for other variables the might influence both the presence of books in the home and the education level of the children, such as parents’ education, that would further support the correlation between the number of books in the home and the eventual education level of the children. A fun test of this correlation would be to randomly distribute books to households and see what happens!

  8. andy, i’m not trying to be difficult; it’s just that i’ve also read studies (levitt) that suggest books are not indeed the cause, but merely a predictor. i’d love to look at the study itself, but it’s hidden behind a $31.50 electronic wall. your quote from claudene wharton (not involved in the study, merely writing about it) seems odd to me (capitals mine):

    “For years, educators have thought the strongest PREDICTOR of attaining high levels of education was having parents who were highly educated. But, strikingly, this massive study showed that the difference between being raised in a bookless home compared to being raised in a home with a 500-book library has as great an EFFECT on the level of education a child will attain as having parents who are barely literate (3 years of education) compared to having parents who have a university education (15 or 16 years of education). Both factors, having a 500-book library or having university-educated parents, PROPEL a child 3.2 years further in education, on average.”

    wharton moves from levels of education being a PREDICTOR to the books being a cause — a cause even that PROPELS children to 3 more years of school. which very well may be what the study proved; i merely have my doubts. has anyone actually paid the money to read the study?

    it’s just that there are bound to be characteristics of parents that simply ARE, and aren’t measurable by pay scale and terminal degree — factors like encouragement, actual intelligence, overseeing homework, etc.

    what if the study is really showing us that the true intelligence of a parent isn’t shown by how many years he/she went to school?

    you have to believe me when i say i’m not trying to be rude. i just think a study should stand up to some healthy criticism before we buy kids books as a magic bullet. and i can’t find any in the mere hour i looked. but also, the study’s not been made available to the public as far as i can tell. i say we sit on this a while. if a parent who doesn’t buy books goes and buys some books, i don’t think that does the trick.

  9. Of course you are right. The study should seek to stand up to critique. And perhaps it will be proven to be flawed. But it would be a rookie mistake to not take all the factors into consideration that you validly raise.

    A magic bullet, of course not. Even valid studies are just averages. Not guarantees for any particular case.

  10. If you build a library, they will read. Both of my daughters taught themselves to read when they were preschool age. They had (and still do) daily 2 hour quiet times with not much else besides books, and lots of them. Now, a few years later, they’re avid readers and budding writers. Makes my job as a homeschooling mom that much easier 🙂

  11. I’m curious to know how the influence of television, computers, dvds, video games, etc. influences those simple results?

  12. Any time we’ve tried to count the books in our house (adults’, children’s, cookbooks, car books, Bibles, all the rest), we end up at somewhere between 1600 and 1800…and that’s rather puny compared to some other homeschooling families. (We never get much higher than that because that’s when we start running out of space and usually give some away.) So any time I hear about homes with only twenty books, it gives me the shivers. Really.

    And yet I know that there are still homes without books, where they DON’T fall down on the floor laughing when the telephone surveyor asks if they have more than twenty or fifty books in the house. (We were asked a similar question over the phone awhile back.)

    The vast majority of our books came from thrift shops and library sales and cost very little, so nobody should say that they cannot afford to have twenty books in the house.

    So maybe it’s more a matter of just caring about it?

  13. Perhaps it is just the fact that a parent loves and values reading. My husband and I both enjoy reading. If you want something, get it and then walk around with it as if it’s a treasure then little eyes will wonder what’s in that book.
    So, education or no education, if you value knowledge and seek to increase your own then your children will value that as well. I love my Bible and my kids love getting their “own” Bible. Life IS more caught than taught.

  14. I supppose if your children don’t have dyslexia, they might teach themselves to read. 🙂

    What, I wonder, does this do to help us understand the success of children from families in a time when three books equaled the price of a house?

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