The annual scramble is on. With summer vacation looming, single parents and couples working outside the home must figure out who will care for grade-school-age children during long days without school. It isn't easy, given the rising cost of day care and the challenges of providing fun, enriching activities while parents juggle work schedules and caregiver availability.
The state of child care in the U.S. is the subject of a U.S. Census survey report released this month, called "Who's Minding the Kids?" Among its findings is an uncomfortable answer to the question posed in the title: nobody, in many cases. The survey found that 4.2 million grade-school-aged children cared for themselves on a regular basis during a typical week in spring of 2011.
That's about 1 in 10 American children regularly left home alone. During summer vacation, the numbers are probably higher, as the survey didn't differentiate between summertime and weeks when school is in session, said Lynda Laughlin, a family demographer from the U.S. Census Bureau and author of the report.
Patchwork of care
Laughlin said that for 94 percent of grade-schoolers with working mothers, school is relied on as a care arrangement, with parents wangling their work schedules to roughly mirror school hours. A giant child care gap opens up when school lets out for the summer.
Many families manage to occupy their children during summer by stitching together a tricky patchwork of day camps and time spent with older siblings, other relatives or paid baby sitters, said Cindy Mall, senior program manager for California's Child Care Resource and Referral Network. The nonprofit network was founded in 1980 as the nation's first statewide network of child care information and resources. In the following decades, the California group became the model for similar networks found in most U.S. states.
Summer day camps that let kids explore their interests — art, theater or sports camps, for instance — are a popular way of keeping kids safe and learning, Mall said. But they provide only a partial solution to day-care challenges. Camps are usually week-to-week enterprises, so parents must line up several of them back-to-back and work out transportation from morning camps to afternoon camps, Mall said. In families with several school-age children, complications multiply.
"It's challenging to find all-day care that starts early enough for parents to get to work, lasts long enough and doesn't require transportation in the middle," she said. The "Who's Minding the Kids?" survey found that only 5 percent of grade-school children are cared for in an organized day-care facility.
Parents above the poverty line tend to have more flexibility with work schedules, or might be able to pay a nanny or other caregiver to transport kids from activity to activity and watch over them in between, Mall said. And in two-parent families that are relatively well off, having one parent decrease working hours during summer vacation is less likely to sink the family budget.
For low-income families, though, the challenges of summer child care are harder to surmount, even if children can be enrolled in day camps that accept payment on a sliding scale based on income. Families with children under 15 who live below the poverty line spend a whopping 30 percent of their monthly income on child care, the census survey showed.
Changes in the U.S. welfare system have put many more low-income parents into the work force, and the low-paying jobs they typically get often require shift work that rotates on a random schedule, Mall said. That makes child care arrangements complicated. Single parents — they're usually mothers — have it hardest of all, because there isn't another parent in the home to share the burdens of work and child care.
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