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Summer Isn't Always A Vacation For Families Who Can't Afford It

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When the school year ends, lower-income families can't afford the costs of summer — and kids fall behind in learning.

When the school year ends, some kids go to camp, summer school or daycare. But a lot of these options are expensive for families who have to come up with creative, cheaper alternatives, whether that means sending kids off to the city's rec center, or to stay with grandparents.

NPR's Lynn Neary spoke about the economic hardships of summer with KJ Dell'Antonia, who's written about the topic for The New York Times.

Dell'Antonia says research shows that children from lower-income families tend to fall behind over the summer, especially in reading.

Interview Highlights

Those days of leaving kids out, where they could ride their bicycles around or just be gone for an entire day on an adventure — those days are gone, right?

That's what we used to do and that is invariably what people say when you write about this particular topic, but it's just not something we can do anymore. Considering the woman in South Carolina who was arrested in 2014 for leaving her 9-year-old daughter at a park while she worked, it's not an accepted part of our society anymore.

What about leaving kids with other relatives or older kids to babysit for them?

Well, it depends on what you define as older. What research has found is that self-care goes up in the summer for 6- to 12-year-olds. So, you could have that child home alone or you could have a 6-year-old being babysat by a 10-year-old, in effect. That's considered a little young in a lot of places now, and when it comes to being left with a family member, you know, some kids get lucky. Some spend summer with grandma — that's fantastic –- others, that family member may be a little less enthusiastic, a little less capable of getting out, or may have a bunch of kids around, which can be sort of good and bad.

And there's a big educational consequence here too, because some of the summer camps and the summer programs are real, sort of educational enrichment programs for kids who can afford them, while these other kids who can't afford them, they often fall behind over the summer, right?

Right, it's called "the summer slide," and it affects everybody. Most kids fall back a little in math. When it comes to reading, what research has shown is that lower income kids typically lose two to three months over the summer and the big distinction when it comes to reading is that they just don't get it back. And researchers aren't super clear on why that is. But they are pretty clear on the fact that a learning-based program — just getting out there and doing something different and hearing new words ... and doing some reading in that context — that keeps the skills up.

In researching this, did you come across any local government programs or low-cost resources that parents can use?

That's what's really interesting. There is a lot out there. What I found when I talked to parents was that when they knew about a program, they were ready to jump on it. 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. But 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.

And that's another piece of this — the question of transportation at the right time. If your job starts at 7 o'clock in the morning and the program starts at 9, that's not going to help much. It's really all part of that whole distinction between life as an upper- and middle-income parent and life as a lower-income parent — it's just harder to do everything.

Here's what I found interesting: That despite all these challenges, I think most of the parents who I talked to were not in favor of doing away with summer vacation. They like the idea of summer vacation.

Oh, we all love the idea of summer vacation. I love the idea of summer vacation. It's a wonderful part of our culture and we really think of it, even if we're not experiencing it, as this time of freedom. And you know parents at every income level want to come home in the long evenings and have that time with their kids and have the lack of scheduling so it is funny you'd think we'd want to do away with it because it's a challenge, but we don't, we just want it to be what we want it to be.

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