Aug 02, 2023

Private Organizations Are No Replacement for Government Public Goods

Posted Aug 02, 2023 9:02 PM

By Alexandra Middlewood

On August 14th, Dolly Parton is coming to Kansas to celebrate the statewide success of her Imagination Library program.

Dolly's Imagination Library is an example of how music, art, and culture can intersect with social change. Through her deep commitment to education and literacy, Dolly has shown that celebrities can be powerful catalysts for positive transformation.

Founded in 1995 by Dolly Parton herself, the Imagination Library is a unique book-gifting program that provides free books to children from birth to five years old with the mission of fostering a lifelong passion for reading.

The program runs in all 50 US states, including our very own Kansas, and has gifted over 200 million free books across the globe.

The Imagination Library has had a significant positive impact on childhood development and literacy skills for Kansas’ children.

Research has consistently shown that early exposure to books and reading positively influences a child's cognitive development, language skills, and emotional well-being.

Children who have participated in the program have demonstrated better preparedness for school, stronger reading and math skills, improved vocabulary, and increased levels of reading comprehension.

Some studies have indicated that children who participated in the Imagination Library program are more likely to perform better academically throughout their school years. Improved early literacy skills have been associated with higher achievement levels in later grades.

The Imagination Library has also become a significant force in leveling the playing field for young readers.

By delivering carefully selected books tailored to each child's age and interests, Dolly's Library has equalized access to education for children irrespective of their socio-economic backgrounds.

The Imagination Library ensures that every child, regardless of their family’s socio-economic status, has access to books from an early age.

By providing free books directly to children's homes, the Library ensures that even those in underserved and disadvantaged communities have access to quality literature. This reduces educational disparities and helps bridge the gap between different social and economic groups, promoting inclusivity and equal opportunities for all children.

While Dolly’s Imagination Library provides an incredibly important service for children, and certainly earns the praise it receives, it is also indicative of a concerning societal shift towards the outsourcing of public services.

Rather than coming together in collective action and making demands on government — like increasing funding to local libraries — citizens are relying on private entities to provide public goods — like sending free books through the mail.

When public services are outsourced to private entities, citizens may feel less connected to the provision of those services. They might also perceive their role in contributing to the common good as diminished.

Research on civic engagement suggests that this leads to a reduced sense of civic duty, which results in a less engaged, informed, and active citizenry.

Civic duty refers to the responsibility and obligation citizens feel to actively engage in the democratic process and contribute to the well-being of their communities.

When citizens experience a weakening of this sense of duty, it can lead to reduced levels of participation in several ways: a decline in political engagement, decreased interest in public affairs, and lower levels of volunteering and community involvement, just to name a few.

Citizen involvement is essential for a robust and thriving society. Historically, such involvement has pressured government to create comprehensive and equitable social safety nets that address the broad spectrum of societal needs. Charitable organizations like the Imagination Library can complement and enhance government efforts, but a collaborative approach between the public and private sectors is most effective in achieving lasting social change.

So, while charitable organizations like Dolly Parton's Imagination Library provide an important service to young children, they should not be viewed as a replacement for government-provided public goods.


Alexandra Middlewood, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Wichita State University.