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Summer's coming: who will watch grade school kids while parents work?

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.
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.

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.

Poverty's toll

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.

Even "self-care" — the Census Bureau's euphemistic term for children left alone — is a less useful option in low-income homes, said Laughlin, author of the census survey report, who said 9.8 percent of children living in poverty are in self-care situations; 14.6 percent of children not in poverty are.

Perhaps the span between those figures reflects the obvious difference between leaving older children on their own for a period of time each day in an affluent suburban home, as opposed to consigning them to roam dangerous inner-city neighborhoods unsupervised.

"Families above the poverty line may live in safer communities and feel more comfortable allowing children to care for themselves," Laughlin said.

Some resources

Resources for finding good child care vary from state to state. Parents can check online for referral networks like the one Mall directs for the state of California. Recreation programs run by cities can be an inexpensive way to provide wholesome summer activities, she added.

Parents can make use of creative options like "share-care" — parents who work on different schedules and trade child care with each other, Mall said. But solving the child care dilemma for needy children ultimately will require an array of supports — from public funding, volunteerism, referral networks and educating families about taking advantage of tax breaks they might not know about, Mall said.

Families whose employers offer flexible spending accounts (sometimes called FLEX accounts) can set aside up to $2,500 per year in pre-tax dollars to spend on child care or medical needs, said Ginita Wall, a CPA and certified financial planner who writes for the Turbo Tax website.

Families whose employers don't offer flexible spending accounts can get a dependent care tax credit for children enrolled in day care, she said. What many families fail to realize, though, is that the credit can be applied to fees for summer day camps.

"You might have a 10-year-old enrolled in soccer camp all day, or a theater-minded middle-school child in theater camp. You don't think about that being day care, but it really is," she said.

Parents who pay a relative to tend their children can take a tax deduction for the amount paid, but the relative must report the income to the IRS, Wall said. The benefit doesn't apply when older siblings are paid to tend younger children, though.

The census report indicates that child costs have gone up continuously over time and that the number of parents in the labor force remains high. The child care squeeze looks to be here to stay, so parents would do well to take any deductions they can, Wall said.