All Work and No Play?

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 All Work and No Play?

Most families are content with how their child spends out-of-school time, but low-income and minority families are significantly less likely to be satisfied with their options. On virtually every measure of satisfaction—whether it’s quality, affordability or availability of activities—low-income and minority parents are substantially more likely than their respective counterparts to indicate they encounter problems. Both groups, by overwhelming margins, indicate their communities could realistically do much more for kids and that keeping youngsters busy during the summer is especially tough.

For students and parents in Yonkers, New York, the 2004 school year opened with news that, owing to severe budget cuts, there would be virtually no sports offered, no extracurricular activities like yearbook, drama or school newspaper, and no art, music or foreign-language courses at the elementary school level.6 In New York City, the Dance Theater of Harlem closed the doors to its ballet school indefinitely, citing lack of funds.7 Similarly, many parents these days find themselves paying a lot more money for activities that used to be provided at nominal cost through the schools or the community.8 Not surprisingly, when programs are cut or fees go up, low-income and minority families are especially hard hit. Yet finding after finding in this research shows that it’s parents and youngsters in these families who are more likely to lack quality, convenient or affordable opportunities to keep children productively occupied during their out-of-school time.

The Less Money You Have…

The vast majority of America’s parents overall are content with the way their child spends time after school. More than 7 in 10 (71%) describe their child’s routine during the school year as just about right rather than as “too hectic with too many things to do” (16%) or as leaving kids with “too much free time on [their] hands” (13%).

But scratch beneath the surface and the data reveal substantial problems. The less income a family has, the more likely parents are to hold negative views about the quality, convenience and affordability of the organized activities available to their child and about the family-friendliness of their neighborhoods. As one might expect, the wealthiest families (earning $100,000 or more annually) are the most satisfied, those with the lowest income (less than $25,000 per year) the least. But in terms of the dissatisfaction they express, the lowest-earning families stand out against every other income group, even those with relatively modest incomes. For purposes of comparison, in this finding we differentiate “low-income parents” (those with household incomes of less than $25,000) from “higher-income parents” (those with incomes of $50,000 or more).

Race Matters

As a group, the views of African American and Hispanic parents (“minority parents”) differ markedly from those of white parents when it comes to their attitudes and experiences regarding their child’s after-school opportunities. On virtually every measure where there’s dissimilarity, minority parents are substantially less satisfied. To a large extent, the demographic variables of income and race tend to go hand in hand. For example, minority parents are more than twice as likely to fit into the low-income category themselves compared with white parents (25% vs. 11%, respectively, have household incomes of less than $25,000 a year).

Having It All

The data show unequivocally that low-income and minority parents are unhappier with the status quo compared with their counterparts. For example, when asked to think about how their child spends their out-of-school time, low-income parents are twice as likely as those with higher income to say they would want to change things if they could (66% vs. 33%). On the other hand, 67% of higher-income parents —and 63% of white parents—would “basically stick with things the way they are now.”

And why not? Virtually all higher-income parents are living their ideal after-school situation. Whether they prefer their child to have “a scheduled place to go and activities to do after school” or “a relaxed afternoon where [he or she] comes home, takes it easy, does homework and spends time with friends,” almost 100% of higher-income parents get what they consider to be ideal. Among low-income parents, the results are far less sanguine. For example, while more than 4 in 10 low-income parents (41%) wish their child could have an after-school routine that is scheduled with activities, only 23% describe their child’s actual routine as such. As you can see in the corresponding chart, this pattern is apparent when comparing minority and white parents as well.

An Arizona mother who is struggling to make ends meet captured the sentiment of many of her peers: “My husband has been laid off for a little over a year now, so it’s trying to find $200 for football and $100 for track and $200 for soccer…. I don’t think there’s enough offered out there for families who don’t have the money.… We just can’t foot the bill.… It’s very difficult.”

Worried about Hanging Out

Making sure their son or daughter is productively occupied during the non-school hours is a significant worry for lowincome parents. Just 37% say they have this under control, compared with 60% of higher-income parents. In the same vein, more than 1 in 4 (26%) financially pressed parents say they struggle regularly to keep their child occupied, while just 11% of their higher-income counterparts say this is so for them. Another 37% and 30%, respectively, of both groups say they struggle occasionally.

As we learned in Finding 2, most parents today have serious concerns about the corrosive societal influences preying on children, but there is evidence that this uneasiness is magnified among low-income and minority parents. Perhaps because they live in rougher neighborhoods, or because their children often attend overcrowded, poorly funded schools, almost half of the low-income parents surveyed (46%) worry that “hanging out with the wrong crowd” might lead their child astray. In contrast, just 28% of higher-income parents express this worry. Similarly, a plurality of low-income parents (39%) choose “to keep kids busy and out of trouble” as the best reason for a child to be involved in structured activities during nonschool hours, compared with 23% of higher-income parents.

The margins are only slightly smaller when comparing minority and white families. For example, 37% of minority parents worry that their child could be easily influenced if “hanging out with the wrong crowd,” compared with 28% of white parents. Among minority parents, 35% point to keeping kids busy as the best reason for a child to be involved in organized activities, compared with 25% of white parents.

Having more options for organized activities that are interesting, convenient and affordable might go a long way toward easing the minds of minority youngsters as well as their parents. While 2 out of 3 minority kids (66%) agree with the statement “When adults see kids my age hanging out together, they automatically think we’re up to no good,” just over half of white kids feel the same (52%).

The Search for Quality

Overwhelmingly high numbers of parents (between 83% and 91%)—whether high- or low-income, minority or white—say their families have looked carefully into the options available in their communities for organized activities and programs. But finding high-quality offerings is a much more difficult task for some than for others. When asked how easy it is in their own community to find things for their child that are “of high quality,” 45% of low-income parents say it is easy, compared with 66% of high-income, a 21-percentage-point difference. This wide disparity is consistent on other measures of quality too: 45% vs. 72% say it’s easy to find things that are run by trustworthy adults, a 27-percentage-point difference; 49% vs. 74% that it’s easy to find things that are interesting to their child, a 25-percentage-point difference; 47% vs. 73% that it’s easy to find things that are age-appropriate, a 26-percentagepoint difference. A similar pattern is evident between minority and white parents (see chart).

Counting on the Neighbors?

Overwhelming majorities of parents—regardless of their demographic characteristics—have a positive outlook about their own neighborhood and consider it a safe and friendly place to raise children. But for low-income and minority parents, there appears to be considerable room for improvement in some areas. While almost 2 in 3 low-income parents (65%) say their community could realistically do much more when it comes to having enough things to do for grade school children, less than half of higher-income parents (46%) feel this way. (This is virtually the same when comparing minority [71%] with white parents [46%].) When it comes to teens, majorities of all groups agree their community could realistically do much more, although the proportions of low-income and minority parents are considerably higher (see chart).

According to one low-income, single working mother in Oregon: “The neighbors have no kids in our neighborhood…. It’s a nice neighborhood, but there’s hardly any kids. I think that can cause boredom…. The educational system here stinks to me. It’s not priority, and it’s not key. Family is not key. You have to be really strong in your own belief system to be able to make it and [not] take it personal.”

Low-income and minority parents are especially likely to see a role for local government in terms of providing things for neighborhood kids to be doing when they’re not in school. Only about 1 in 10 (12% and 11%, respectively) think it’s enough for local government to “make sure there are parks, playgrounds and libraries in the community.” Almost 9 in 10 of both groups (86% and 87%) say municipal government “should also provide quality organized activities and programs.” In contrast, a much smaller proportion of higher-income and white parents (66% for both) feels this way.

It’s Not Optional

Wealthier parents can typically afford to pick the kinds of activities that could really help their children thrive, but lowerincome parents don’t have the luxury of thinking about things like cultivating a child’s interests or hobbies. The bottom line for many low-income parents is the need for child care during the hours between the end of the school day and the end of the workday. This was a burning issue in the focus groups.


“Who doesn’t work today?” asked a mother from Connecticut. “It’s not optional. People work. People have kids, [after-school activities are] something that they need…and there’s also the issue about money, too. Not everybody has a large salary where they can say, ‘Okay, I can pay whatever amount to provide my child with what they need.’” Another said simply, “We both have to work, so I just kind of tried to look for something where he could have a little fun, and I could have the peace of mind that he’s taken care of.” According to the survey, parents earning $50,000-plus a year are more than twice as likely to say that it’s easy to find things in their community that are affordable, compared with those earning less than $25,000 (65% vs. 30%; white vs. minority is 62% vs. 39%).

“A Lot of the Programs Are Designed for Stay-at-Home Moms”

For some parents, concerns about quality and affordability must be weighed against their lack of time or means to transport a child to and fro. Again, it’s low-income and minority parents who face this obstacle disproportionately. Less than half of the low-income parents surveyed (45%) say it’s easy to find organized activities and programs in their community that are conveniently located, compared with more than 7 in 10 (72%) of their higher-income counterparts. For minority and white parents, the proportions are 44% vs. 71%. “We’re restricted on what’s available to them,” a Connecticut mother commented, “because by the time you get in from work, pick them up and get them somewhere—a lot of the programs are [designed] for stay-at-home moms…. They’re not set up for parents that come in later.”

In one focus group, which had a mix of both lower-income and more affluent parents, a financially comfortable father commented, “[Someone] was talking about being in a neighborhood without other kids around. If you don’t have other parents to share, to carpool, or whatever, your kid may be stuck…. If you don’t have the time and means to get there, it can be, perhaps, for some parents, impossible.” And a lowincome mother responded, “That certainly happened to us many times, where we wanted to do activities but just didn’t have the means to get there, timing-wise, because parents were working.”

Summertime, and the Livin’s Not So Easy

Summer stands out as the most difficult time to find productive things for kids to do—and this is about equally true among parents regardless of income or race (approximately 6 in 10 for all groups). Still, on virtually every issue addressed in the survey about the summer months, low-income and minority parents are more apprehensive or less satisfied, sometimes by overwhelming margins.

For example, 63% of low-income parents say their kids “really don’t have enough good options” for things to do during the summer months, compared with 43% of higher-income parents. Perhaps this lack of good alternatives is one explanation for why, at the time of this survey in June, 6 in 10 (60%) low income Parents said they were still up in the air with summer plans for their child. In contrast, 75% of higher-income parents said their plans were set.

Almost 2 out of 3 low-income parents (65%) expressed concern that their son or daughter would be bored during the summer months, compared with less than half of those making $50,000 or more (48%)—a 17-percentage-point gap. By a margin of 57% to 38%, low-income parents were worried that there would not be enough options during the summer to capture their child’s interest—a 19- percentage-point difference. Finally, by 31% to 13%, low-income parents were much more likely to be concerned about having trouble finding child care during the summer—an 18-percentage-point difference.

In the Connecticut focus group, where there were a number of parents who seemed to be just making ends meet financially, talk about the summer months provoked anxiety. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with her for the summer,” one mom said, “because I can’t afford to send her here [to the community center].” This sentiment is corroborated in the survey findings, with more than 3 in 4 low-income parents (76%) expressing concern that they wouldn’t be able to afford the things their child wanted to do during summer break, compared with 42% of those with higher incomes. (See chart on this page for comparisons between minority and white parents regarding the summer months.)

“Who Can Watch Her?”

A parent from Connecticut told us, only half-jokingly, “If the world were different, like I want it, I would shop for a living, and then I would be out in time to pick up my daughter from school…. I’m a single mom, so necessity runs my life, as far as [my need for] day care. But if [I had a choice], then I would be more concerned about getting her enrolled in soccer or some sort of activity…now it’s more a concern of ‘Who can watch her?’”

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