Among my very favorite days of the school year as a child were RIF days. You might remember them, too. RIF stands forReading is Fundamental, a program with a 55+ year history of providing books to children for free. Which meant that about twice a year every child in my class would be able to look over a variety of books and choose one that seemed particularly interesting and take it home - that's right! - for free. The very fact that I remember this 40 years later testifies, I think, to RIF's impact on my development as a reader.
What I didn't know at the time, however, was that what was a really fun day for me was life-changing for some of my classmates. I had no way of knowing then that for some of my classmates - and kids across the country - these free books were likely the only books they would ever receive. Research shows that only one poor child in 300 owns a book of his or her own. Which makes what RIF has accomplished - distributing more than 400 million books to needy children since it began in 1966 - is both remarkable and vital.
What is also remarkable, but this time also tragic, is that RIF's entire federal funding was cut in the last round of budget deals. RIF lost $24.8 in those cuts. While RIF has recruited a network of 400,000 volunteers and cultivated corporate and private donors, the impact of these cuts cannot be overstated. In Minnesota where I live, for instance, while RIF traditionally served about 28,000 children a year it will be able to serve fewer than 7000 this year, representing a 75% reduction in their ability to change the lives of poor children by nurturing literacy.
The budget cuts devastating RIF were part of a short-term deal allowing lawmakers more time to pass a comprehensive budget. Which means that such cuts can be restored if lawmakers sense there is enough commitment among their constituents. For this reason, I'd urge you to contact your federal legislators and urge them to help RIF continue changing the lives of children. Research has consistently shown that literacy is among the chief factors that determine one's ability to find and hold a job and thereby create a stable home environment and lead a productive life. We can help continue RIF's amazing work by volunteering, by donating, and by urging the government to continue its support of putting books into the hands of children. Indeed, we can make sure RIF does not RIP!
Some good folks, I know, may question why the government should be supporting programs like this, suggesting that the job of encouraging children to read is the responsibility of parents. Certainly parents have a crucial role to play, and for this reason one of RIFs primary goals is to increase the time parents spend with their children reading. But some parents, working several jobs to pay the bills or beset by their own problems, have a hard time doing this.
Interestingly, this situation isn't new. In 1524 Martin Luther urged city councils throughout Germany to establish and maintain public schools - something relatively unheard of at the time - and he also encountered the objection that government should not take an active role in supporting education when God has appointed parents to do so. While Luther conceded that some parents fail their children because they are either too selfish or had such poor parenting themselves that they did not know how to be good parents, he nevertheless maintained that this did not absolve the state of its duty to support parents in their efforts, sometimes by doing what the parents themselves could not. As Luther writes, "what if parents fail to do their duty? Who then is to do it? Is it for this reason to be left undone, and the children neglected? How will the authorities and council then justify their position, that such matters are not their responsibility?" (Luther's Works, Vol. 45:354). Because he believed that education was at the center of social stability, he concluded by saying that public officials had a God-given responsibility to care for children and support their education:
It therefore behooves the council and authorities to devote the greatest care and attention to the young. Since the property, honor, and life of the whole city has been committed to their faithful keeping, they would be remiss in their duty before God and man if they did not seek its welfare and improvement day and night with all the means at their command. (Luther's Works, Vol. 45:355).
In order to help you encourage our public leaders to honor their God-given responsibilities, I'll put a link here where you can find the email addresses and phone number of your legislators. And if you want more information about RIF, you can find it at their website. Finally, RIF recently produced a short video to encourage folks to join their efforts to change children's lives through literary and I've placed that below. Feel free to share it, and any of this information, with your friends, family and congregation members who love children and books.