Summer Break: Not All Fun & Games for Lower-Income Children

Summer vacation is an American tradition. Schools across all 50 states relieve students of their studies by late May or June, and usually, the next school year doesn’t begin until August or September.

To most children, summer vacation is something to look forward to all school year. Not having homework or other educational responsibilities for an extended amount of time is every kid’s dream, isn’t it?

Maybe. But what problems can a two- or three-month-long break pose for parents?

Here’s the reality: Many low-income and working parents can’t afford camps, care, or learning programs to keep their children occupied and active over the summer.

Many parents end up leaving their school-age kids at home during the day because they have no other choice — in 2014, summer child care expenses tallied up to almost $1,000 per kid, according to some parents.

The care problem

Self-sufficiency and independence are important traits to have, but at how young?

“Self-care for 6- to 12-year-olds increases during the summer months, with 11 percent of children spending an average of 10 hours a week on their own,” said a 2016 article by The New York Times.

If a child is staying home alone, that may not be developmentally healthy or beneficial to him or her. What’s more, it could introduce emotional abuse or other emotional problems. If a child is staying with a relative, like a grandparent — that could be an effective care solution, but eventually, that grandparent may get too old to take care of the child properly. And when it comes to babysitters — the expense may not be realistic for many parents.

On top of the care dilemma, there’s also an obvious learning gap that happens between students who go to camps and other programs over the summer and students who do not.

The learning problem

According to The New York Times, “Most kids lose math skills over the summer, but low-income children also lose, on average, more than two months of reading skills — and they don’t gain them back.”

This sets them up for further learning setbacks.

“That puts them nearly three years behind higher income peers by the end of fifth grade, and the gap just keeps getting wider. Researchers credit the summer slide for about half of the overall difference in academic achievement between lower and higher income students,” said The New York Times.

Chances are, in most situations, it is undoubtedly more beneficial for students to go to a comprehensive summer camp, specialized or general summer learning program, or even summer school than it is for them to stay home alone. Those programs can be expensive, though, and the inexpensive ones have limited availability.

For example, KJ Dell’Antonia, the author of the New York Times article, said to NPR: “When I talked to this one woman who said I knew I had to be online right at 10 a.m. to get her signed up for the thing that’s $100 a week with the city, and it was like waiting for concert tickets. And that program did fill up fast.”

It seems as though there’s more demand for affordable summer programs than there is supply. Even so, the NPR article introduced yet another hurdle posed against working parents: transportation.

Even more problems

Transportation isn’t something that immediately comes to mind as an issue posed by summer break. But without school buses or other ways for children to get to and from summer care options, low income families are left with yet another worry to alleviate.

“[I] also talk to some people who run programs who say you know we have room, but they’re either not getting the word out to the parents or the parents can’t get the kids to the program,” said Dell’Antonia in the NPR piece. “If your job starts at 7 o’clock in the morning and the program starts at 9, that’s not going to help much.”

Yet another problem induced by school vacation is food. During the school year, free and reduced breakfast and lunch options are offered to low income students in public schools. When summer break rolls around, those services likely disappear or become unattainable.

In a 2015 Slate article, a low income single mother, Olympia, and her daughter, Raina, portray the struggles many families deal with during summer break. The piece features a story reprinted from Longreads.

One quote from the story summarizes the stack of complications that arise when school ends, and notes upon the tacked-on food dilemma: “Raina’s child care jumped from $100 to $160 a week after school ended, and she would no longer have access to the two free meals a day given to low-income children in public schools. During the summer the city continues to offer these meals, but they require caretakers to go and pick them up on a daily basis.”

The line from the Slate article not only includes the expensive childcare issue, but also combines it with the food problem and the transportation problem.

As one can see, there are multiple dilemmas posed by summer break, and they are not mutually exclusive — but are there any solutions?

The possible solutions

Websites like Care.com provide creative problem-solvers to this multifaceted summer break dilemma. To name a few solutions, this Care.com article suggested: creating a nanny camp, which is when one nanny cares for several families’ children at the same time and in the same place; finding a babysitting co-op, which is when a group of families agrees to watch each other’s children free of charge; and creating a customizable hybrid plan, which could consist of a few different care and activity options throughout the summer.

There are also some state and community organizations that are looking to aggregate and/or create low-cost care options so all children can be occupied and taken care of over the summer.

The United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley posted an article that not only discussed the lack of summer opportunities for low-income kids in the state and touched upon the teen unemployment rate, but also provided some examples of places that are trying to combat these issues.

For example: According to the United Way article, the West End House in Allston-Brighton offers members — 75 percent of which live below the poverty line — access to their programming for only 15 dollars per year. Not only that, but summer activities at the organization don’t even come at any extra cost.

And when it comes to Massachusetts’ 26 percent unemployment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds, the United Way article says this: “UTEC in Lowell offers a Workforce Development and Social Enterprise program for older youth, many of whom have criminal histories and gang involvement, making them among the hardest to reach during the summer.” The aforementioned UTEC program offers: paid employment, workforce training and coaching, and mentoring.

Solutions to summer break — a time of year that is supposed to be problem-free — are in the making.

It’s also important to note that not all low income or working parents struggle with finding care options or extracurricular activities over the summer. But that’s not to say that there aren’t still families who struggle with creating a beneficial and productive school break for their kids.

As time goes on, it will be interesting to see what kinds of opportunities arise for low income, working parents and their children. It’s possible that at some point, affordable and accessible forms of education technology and the immense amount of free time created by summer break will intersect and create comprehensive problem-solvers for kids of all income levels.

Elizabeth Hartel

Elizabeth Hartel

Elizabeth hails from New Jersey and studies journalism at Emerson College, where she works for two publications: a lifestyle magazine and a music magazine. In addition to education, she also enjoys writing about health and fitness and pop culture.