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Who's minding the kids?

By Nikki Yamashiro

“Perhaps the most critical decision parents make in balancing their work and home life is choosing the type of care to provide for their children while they work.”  We at the Afterschool Alliance couldn’t agree more with this statement by Lynda Laughlin, author of a Census Bureau report released last week analyzing child care patterns and costs.  A positive and encouraging finding of the report is that the percentage of school-age kids who have no regular child care arrangement—kids in self-care—has decreased, and this is particularly true of children with a single, employed parent.

Who’s Minding the Kids? Child Care Arrangements: Spring 2011” examined the Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) data to determine the child care arrangements of preschoolers (children under 5) and school-age kids (children ages 5 to 14) and found that between 1997 and 2011, the percentage of school-age children in self-care who lived with a single, employed parent decreased from 24 percent to 14 percent.  One explanation offered for this decrease was increased investment in afterschool programs.  This rationale is highly probable, given that federal funding for 21st Century Community Learning Centers—the only federal funding dedicated exclusively to before-school, afterschool and summer learning programs—was first appropriated $40 million in 1998, and has grown to $1.1 billion for FY2013 and serves approximately 1.1 million kids.

Another noteworthy finding from the report is that the cost of child care has increased over time, although the average percentage of family income spent on child care stayed constant, hovering around 7 percent, between 1997 and 2011.  The average weekly cost of child care for families with employed mothers increased from $84 in 1985 (constant 2011 dollars) to $143 in 2011.  Looking specifically at school-age care costs, the report finds that the average cost for school-age care was $124 in 2011.  Among families living below the poverty line, the average weekly cost for school-age child care was $88, or nearly one-third of the family’s income.  Of particular concern is the fact that among families who paid for child care, those below the poverty line spent more than four times the percentage of their income on school-age child care as other families who were living at or above the poverty line (29 percent compared with 6 percent).

Based on these cost figures, it seems safe to assume that families are not getting much help with their child care costs.  In fact, only 5 percent of families report receiving help paying for school-age child care and just 3 percent report that they received help from the government. 

While there is some good news regarding self care in the report, it is troubling that there are 4.2 million kids, ages 5 to 14 and living with their mom, who didn’t have a regular child care arrangement.  Five percent of kids ages 5 to 11 were on their own in 2011 and 27 percent of kids ages 12 to 14 were on their own.  On average these kids spend 7 hours per week with no supervised care.  These numbers are in line with findings from our 2009 America After 3PM report that 4 percent of kids in kindergarten through 5th grade and 30 percent of kids in 6th through 8th grade were on their own.   Given the findings regarding the high cost of school-age care and the lack of assistance in paying for care, it’s not surprising that the number of kids in self-care, while on the decline, still continues to be high.

We know that the hours between 3 and 6 p.m. are the peak hours for juvenile crime and experimentation with drugs, alcohol and other risky behaviors, which is why these numbers illustrate the need for increased investment in afterschool programs to ensure that more kids have the opportunity to participate in programs that will keep them safe, provide academic enrichment and support their working parents.   

How kids spend their time during the hours after school is a primary concern for the Afterschool Alliance.  I’m happy to share that we’re in the middle of planning for our next round of America After 3PM, the largest national household survey that looks at what kids are doing during the afternoon.  The survey provides incredibly useful and relevant data for parents, the afterschool field and policy makers.  I can’t wait to see what insights we gain from the survey this time around, especially taking into account the potential impact of sequestration on families, afterschool programs and communities.  Stay tuned.