I do feel guilty at times because we aren't in financial need of the books. However, I do plan on donating back to Imagination Library, which will probably more than cover the cost of the books they've sent us over the years. Maybe that's part of their reasoning for not making the program dependent on financial need.
My son's primary school has a really extensive collection of books you can borrow, all of them donated by past parents. They have them on displays outside the appropriate classrooms and you just take whichever ones you want and bring them back when you are done with them. No need to check them out.
One of the reasons projects like this don't always means-test is because it puts people off asking. A lot of people see it as shameful, it can be invasive and more time-consumeing, having to say "I'm poor, here's the paperwork and supporting documents to prove it, please give me help". In addition, the savings from limiting it are often partially or totally outweighed by the additional cost of all that beauracracy.
In the UK there is an additional payment that goes to all pensioners in winter to help with the cost of heating. It's automatic because there was a real likelihood that making it means tested would simply mean that many who could benefit would never apply and the admin would cost more than was saved. I think it was the same argument for making school meals free for all kids for the first few years.
Similarly, my pediatrician hands out an age-appropriate book at each visit.
My kids got those books for years and it was fun and nice to come home to such a generous and quality gift. But the library, library book sales, and other local sources like garage sales or credit-swapping consignment shops are also enough alone around here to pile the books quite high. In addition, screen time is absolutely wicked these days compared to when I was a kid. Hoopla is amazing, as are the various sandbox games in which you can mine, farm, build, design, and just explore. I grew up glued to the computer so I take a pretty "whatev" approach as long as I know the screen-activity characteristics are broadly "good" or better yet "fitting for my kid's psychological needs".
The thing I really like about this program, that I have a difficult time doing in my own, is a regular age-appropriate book. It's hard to remind yourself every few weeks to try something new. When you think of books you liked as a kid, like "there's a monster at the end of this book," isn't always at the right level for your child and I always err on what he liked yesterday not really knowing what he'll grow into next.
(If you've ever toured as a musician, the compassionate absurdity part comes in handy.)
Who knew somebody didn't read the article?
"Parton visited the Library of Congress on Tuesday to celebrate a major milestone in the Imagination Library's history: delivery of its 100 millionth book. Not bad for a program Parton founded more than two decades ago as a small, local effort to help kids in her native Sevier County, Tennessee."
"Every month, the nonprofit program mails a free book to more than a million children — from infants to preschoolers."
This has been a project of hers for a very long time.
Her original goal was to improve literacy rates. Targeting children under 5 seems like a strange way to approach this. Reading to your kids is great, and there is some evidence it might help, but if you want kids to read then getting great books into hands of 5-10 year olds seem like it would help more.
Despite coming from a very well-read family, and having been read to at an early age, I resisted reading at a young age. I just wasn't interested in it, and preferred doing other things. It wasn't until 4th grade where I found a copy of 'A Book Dragon' somewhere and fell in love with it. Despite probably being above my reading level at the time, I struggled through it and then went on to devour just about every fantasy book I could get my hands on, becoming an avid general reader in the process. The right book can really make all the difference.
As to 'there is some evidence it might help' (with reading), there's the other, very important part: Being read to turns on your inner movie, your ability to imagine. I still remember the children's hour on Saturday afternoon radio when I was little. The stories unfolded in my brain, and it's true that radio (and books) come with much better pictures than TV, but you need to practice from an early age in order to develop the best of that ability. Thus: Read to children. I applaud Dolly Parton's Imagination Library program. I had no idea she was doing that.
Why? Don't children have to learn to read before you can measure literacy at all? Learning to read versus learning to love to read is definitely as you stated a matter of motivation, but these days kids are learning to read younger and younger due to screen time.
I too come from a well read family but in contrast to your example of not really getting motivated until 4th grade I learned to love to read before school started. By the time second grade rolled around my teacher would ask me to read to the class and then go stand in the doorway chit chatting with the teacher from the next classroom over. And like you it was a gateway into a lifelong love of reading.
Reading requires opportunity and motive. Dolly Parton is supplying the opportunity and since when kids start to read is all over the map, creating it early for those who will pick it up is not wrong. From my perspective and to paraphrase you: denying children under [the age of] 5 seems like a strange way to approach this.
There's a huge amount of positive feedback loops involved in education so if you can give your kid an start that gives them a tiny leg up on their peers it's likely that they will carry that lead all the way through to adulthood.
It's the same arms race we see in athletics. Kids that start school a year later (and are bigger) have better athletics outcomes.
Few people really are naturally exceptional at anything. However, if you've managed to shift your kid's performance curve so they look "gifted" compared to the other kids then your kid gets the best the education system has to offer and this investment of resources compounds in a way that gives them better opportunities which at scale correlates a lot with better outcomes.
Basically parents that have the time/resources/will to game the system in favor of their kids have kids that out-compete the kids of parents who don't. Water is wet. More news at 11.
My 4y/o is learning to read at the moment, and the difference between the early reader phonics books he gets from school and the stuff I read to him at home at the moment is night and day in terms of story and interest. There's a real market for some really good authors to produce better phonics books.
and many, many others. Even if that was the original goal, reading to younger children has many other positive effects.
Whether or not you agree with it, it does seem that the program is aligned with her goals.
Also, literacy and "avid reader" are miles apart as goals. It seems you were already literate.
I think they are important all the way through.