Ranks of Latchkey Kids Approach Seven Million
Ranks of Latchkey Kids Approach Seven Million
By: Laurent Belsie
Date: October 31, 2000
Source: Belsie, Laurent. "Ranks of Latchkey Kids Approach Seven Million." Christian Science Monitor 92 (2000): 38.
About the Author: Laurent Belsie is a staff writer for the Christian Science Monitor. Founded in 1908, the newspaper covers U.S. and international news and social issues.
Prior to the Industrial Age, parents frequently lived and worked in the same place, either on the farm or in the family trade. In the few cases where children attended formal schools they normally returned home after classes to find one or both parents waiting for them. As Americans gradually migrated to the cities, their lifestyles changed, with more fathers working in factories or offices. In many of these homes the mother remained at home, ready to welcome and care for children returning from school; in cases where the mother could not be at home, a nearby relative or neighbor could frequently fill this role.
In the late twentieth century, as two-income families became more common and extended families began living farther apart, after-school childcare presented a challenge, particularly to single parents. While most experts agreed that more children were spending time alone after school, little was known about the extent of the phenomenon. Two studies, released in 1995 and 1997, quantified the problem, revealing that a large segment of the child population spent time alone each day.
St. Louis— A generation ago, almost all children spent their after-school hours under the watchful eye of parents or neighbors. These days, as both parents increasingly work full time, many kids aren't supervised by anybody.
It's something that has nagged parents and policymakers for years, but only now are they getting comprehensive data to uncover how widespread the practice is. While various programs and initiatives have helped working parents provide day care for preschool children, new research suggests that attention to the needs of school-age children has lagged.
According to a Census report released today, almost half of all kids ages 12 to 14 spent just under seven hours home alone, and roughly 1 of every 10 elementary-school children spends 4-1/2 hours a week unsupervised by an adult. Some of them are as young as five years old.
With almost no historical data, comparisons with the past are problematic, and experts are unsure whether the ranks of so-called latchkey children are growing. But they agree that the numbers are a cause for concern—especially because the afternoon hours are the peak time for juvenile crime.
"We've given attention to child care and early childhood, but kids don't magically disappear when they turn 3 or 5 or 12," says Nancy Rankin of the National Parenting Association in New York. "In many ways, children's needs grow more complicated as adolescents."
Today's US Census Bureau report concludes that 6.9 million school children—nearly 20 percent of those between the ages of 5 and 14—regularly cared for themselves without an adult around. Most of those were 12 or older. But even among younger children, the numbers proved significant.
Some 2 percent of the nation's five-year-olds spent an average of 4 1/2 hours a week unsupervised by an adult (although they may have been with an older sibling). It's this group of children—aged 5 to 11—that is causing the greatest consternation.
"We feel concerned about the younger children," says Kathryn Tout, research associate with Child Trends, a nonprofit research group in Washington. "It's a missed opportunity for them to be in a setting that's more developmentally appropriate. But also it could be potentially dangerous."
The Census numbers are somewhat outdated, since they report 1995 figures. But a Child Trends report released last month shows much the same phenomenon. Using 1997 data from the Urban Institute, the group found that some 4 million children aged 6 to 12 who had working mothers spent time home alone. If anything, these figures may underestimate the situation, Ms. Tout adds, because parents are reluctant to report that they leave their children unsupervised.
The reasons parents are letting their kids fend for themselves are not surprising. The biggest factor is that parents lack time because more of them are employed and work longer hours than they did a generation ago.
The percentage of married mothers who work outside the home nearly doubled between 1969 and 1996. As a result, the average family today has 22 fewer hours each week to spend at home than families had 30 years ago, says the Council of Economic Advisers. That's nearly a day less per week; more than two years by the time a child graduates from high school.
That time deficit explains much. Grade-school children with working parents are more than twice as likely to spend part of the day caring for themselves than those whose parents don't, says Kristin Smith, author of the Census report. The general pattern holds true in single-parent as well as dual-parent households. Even mothers who work part-time are far more likely to rely on their children for self-care than mothers who don't work, she adds.
Beyond that, however, the trends get murky. The poorest families are least able to pay for child care. Yet the Census data show they're far less likely to leave their children at home than families who earn at least twice the poverty income. Of course, families that work more, earn more, says Ms. Smith, and they're more likely to live in better neighborhoods where they would feel comfortable leaving children unsupervised.
Another potential factor for children home alone is the rising cost of child care. In 1995, parents paid an average $85 a week for such care—about 50 percent more than they spent a decade earlier, even after adjusting for inflation. And based on further analysis not yet published, Smith says, it appears these child-care costs are a big reason many families choose to leave even five- to eight-year-olds to care for themselves a few hours a week.
Because the research is so new, no one is certain which way the trend is going.
Some researchers suggest that welfare reform, which pushed many poor people into the work force, may be causing the numbers to rise. Others say the numbers of home-alone children may be falling, because of funding boosts from the Clinton administration and private efforts such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to increase the number of after-school programs in the United States.
In the end, today's mothers have been able to spend about as much time with their children as mothers in the 1960s, mostly by spending less time on housework and adjusting work schedules. Mothers in both eras spent about 5.5 waking hours each day with their children, says Suzanne Bianchi, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland at College Park.
But many researchers wonder whether parents' current pace is sustainable. "It used to be that … society was organized so that women would be at home to take care of these needs," says Donna Lenhoff, general counsel for the National Partnership for Women and Families in Washington. "Our society is no longer organized like that. But we haven't restructured the workplace."
The studies described in this article contained a mix of good news and bad news. On the positive side, mothers in the 1990s spent almost the same amount of time with their children as did mothers in the 1960s, averaging five to six hours per day. However, more children appeared to be spending significant amounts of time alone or without adult supervision in the 1990s. Particularly troubling was the study's finding that a small group of five year olds were spending close to an hour per day without any adult supervision. These findings have fueled the efforts of advocates of state or federally sponsored after-school programs.
Additional research has demonstrated the potential value of after-school programs. A 2000 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education found that young people who attend well-run after-school programs earn better grades and higher conduct evaluations; they are also less likely to use drugs, engage in violence, or become pregnant. A 2001 study funded by the YMCA found that 79 percent of students in after-school programs were A or B students, while teens not in such programs are five times as likely to be poor students. While this study's findings do not establish a direct link between after-school programs and higher grades, they do suggest that more positive outcomes are associated with after-school programs.
Another 2000 study looked at the impact of after-school outcomes associated with participation in Boys' Clubs and Girls' Clubs. In a simple comparison between five housing areas with clubs and five without, the five without the programs experienced 30 to 50 percent more vandalism and drug activity than those that had after-school programs. A two-year Canadian study followed the progress of a housing project that instituted after-school recreational and job-training programs. Over the course of the study, juvenile arrests fell by 75 percent from the years before the study.
While the benefits of after-school programs appear well-documented by numerous studies, such programs are frequently opposed because of their costs. After-school care for children is expensive even in its most basic forms. In 2003 the Children's Defense Fund estimated the monthly cost of full-time daycare at $250 to $1200, depending on the location and services provided. While after-school care is less expensive than full-day care, it remains unaffordable for some poor families. A 1993 study by the Census Bureau found that the average employed mother with children under age 5 spent $79.00 per week for child care.
In 2002 the state of California passed a comprehensive law expanding after-school programs for at-risk children. This act allocated an additional $433 million to expand services to almost 500,000 more students throughout the state. While the cost of the program was substantial, advocates pointed to an enormous estimated payback: for each dollar spent on the program, Californians could expect to save from $9.00 to $13.00 in other costs. While some of these savings accrued due to reduced child-care costs paid by individuals, the majority of the benefit accrued from expected reductions in crime-related costs, based on the demonstrated relationship between after-school programs and lower crime rates. The study noted that a career criminal will cost the state $1.4 to $1.7 million over his lifetime, providing tremendous financial incentive to stop teens from entering a criminal lifestyle.
After-school programs, while theoretically providing enormous financial returns, have faced opposition from several fronts. Some religious groups oppose the state's involvement in providing after-school care, believing that this is the responsibility of families. Lawmakers in general often struggle to fund programs the benefits of which are many years in the future but the costs of which occur today; politicians eager for re-election often prefer to fund programs that show short-term benefits, allowing them to trumpet their achievements to voters.
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