More than 1,000 brand new children's books purchased by Tennessee taxpayers are destroyed and tossed in the garbage every month in the Chattanooga area because of a newly enforced United States Postal Service rule.
Statewide, about 51,000 books sent from the Governor's Books from Birth Foundation as part of Dolly Parton's Imagination Library program will be make their way to the trash rather than to a child this year. The discarded books are meant for children from birth to age five to encourage reading, but some never reach their intended recipients -- often because the child's family moves without a forwarding address.
Those undelivered books don't just represent a lost opportunity for children to engage in reading, they represent thousands of wasted tax dollars, as well.
State taxpayers pick up 50 percent of the tab of the Books from Birth program, while local nonprofits, like the United Way, pay the other half of the cost of buying and delivering books. This year, Books from Birth will cost state taxpayers more than $3.4 million.
Since the program costs about $2 per child, per month, the discarded books mean over $100,000 in taxpayer and nonprofit money is squandered annually.
In an effort to keep expenses down, the state-sponsored Imagination Library books are mailed using a low-cost bulk mail postage rate, which doesn't come with return shipping or forwarding services. In the past, the programs' books that were undeliverable were often set aside by post office workers across the state, who would then allow children's charities and community groups to collect and distribute the undeliverable books to needy families.
That all changed in February when the USPS told postal employees in Tennessee they could lose their jobs if they didn't trash the Imagination Library books. The USPS claims the special treatment the books receive is unfair to customers whose packages are thrown away. Additionally, the USPS says, it is an imposition on the postal facilities to have the children's books stacked awaiting pick up by good Samaritans.
In a letter explaining the issue to supporters, Books from Birth president Theresa Carl said "all Tennessee post offices have received written notification that they are not to release these undeliverable books to Imagination Library representatives, with strict consequences for non-compliance of this ruling."
The Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle first unearthed this issue when a reporter discovered that more than 70 books a month that were previously collected by workers at the Clarksville Post Office and given to volunteer organizations are now shredded.
The problem is much worse in Chattanooga.
Jan Brooks, the Project Ready for School Coordinator at the United Way of Greater Chattanooga, said her organization redistributed 10,420 unused Imagination Library books collected by Chattanooga area postal workers last year.
Now, since the USPS has barred postal employees from setting the books aside for the United Way, the books that Brooks and her volunteers were giving to children when they visited a health clinic or when their parents enrolled in WIC are thrown away instead.
The biggest tragedy is that the low-income children who could most benefit from the Imagination Library are the ones least likely to receive them, since they are most likely to move without a forwarding address. Kind-hearted post office workers and organizations like the United Way worked across the state to help address that problem by passing out undeliverable Imagination Library books to some of the state's most disadvantaged preschoolers until the USPS issued its heartless dictate.
Carl points out that the foundation updates its mailing list monthly based on forwarding lists she receives from the post office. Still, she figures that 2 percent of the 2.55 million books that Books from Birth sends out annually through Imagination Library will be destroyed -- and there's little that can be done to prevent that if postal workers aren't allowed to save those 51,000 books.
The USPS should reassess its callous decision to prevent postal employees from rescuing children's books and get them to families who need them.
An act of compassion shouldn't be a fireable offense.