Journal Issue: When School Is Out Volume 9 Number 2 Fall 1999
Family and Community Context
School-age children are firmly intertwined within both their families and neighborhoods: They are still young enough to spend much of their time with their parents, yet they are old enough to begin to explore the neighborhood, often accompanied by friends who live nearby. Thus the dual impact of the family and community contexts during children's middle years can be powerful. Changes that the past several decades have wrought in family structure, parental employment, income, and neighborhood residence mean that children today grow up surrounded by experiences and influences that differ sharply from those that operated earlier in the century.Family Structure and Employment
Traditional families made up of a husband, a wife, and one or more children are far less prominent today than they once were. Less than 30 years ago, 40% of American households matched that description, compared with only one quarter of households in the 1990s.12 Taking the child's perspective, Figure 3 shows the declining prevalence of two-parent households. In 1960, nearly 9 of 10 children lived in two-parent families (including both biological and stepfamilies), but in 1996 fewer than 7 of 10 children did so.13 As unmarried births and divorces have made two-parent families less common, single-parent families headed by women have taken their place. Today, more than half of all children are expected to live at least part of their childhood separated from one or both of their parents.14
Along with changes in family structure have come changing roles for parents. Regardless of their marital status, mothers are more likely to work outside the home today than they were previously. As Figure 4 shows, the proportion of school-age children with a working mother rose by about 10% each decade until it leveled off in 1990.15 The change is greatest for married women: In 1996, some 77% of married mothers with school-age children worked outside the home, while slightly more than 40% were employed in 1960.16 Moreover, the employed mothers of school-agers most often work full time.17 Because the typical school day lasts less than six hours, compared to an adult workday of more than eight hours, it is not surprising that more and more parents are calling for reliable community programs where their youngsters can spend time outside school with adults, enjoy their peers, and pursue their interests.Family Income
Even with the additional salaries of working mothers, poverty rates among families with children have remained high. In 1995, some 19% of children ages 6 to 17 lived in families whose income fell beneath the federal poverty line (which was then $15,569 for a family of four).18 Poverty rates are highest among Native American, African-American, and Hispanic children; among children living in single-parent, female-headed households; and among central-city residents. That said, however, the majority of poor children are white and non-Hispanic, live outside the largest urban areas, and have at least one parent who works.12
All poverty is not equal: Some children live in families with household incomes just below the poverty line, and others live in extremely poor families; some experience poverty for only a few months or a year, and others spend their entire childhood poor.19 African-American children are more likely than others to suffer both extreme and long-term poverty. In many instances, the impact of poverty on children is compounded because families with limited incomes tend to live in neighborhoods with high unemployment, high crime, and few monetary resources. Census data reveal that 1 school-age child in 5 lives in a poor neighborhood, and 1 in 20 lives in a neighborhood considered extremely poor because at least 40% of the households have incomes below the poverty level.20 Youngsters growing up in those situations are likely to inherit a bleak view of what adulthood has to offer them.
Trends in the economy and changes in family composition have combined to widen the gaps between poor, middle-class, and wealthy families.21 From a child's perspective, income disparities translate into sharp differences between the available options when it comes to out-of-school experiences. A 1990 national survey of child care arrangements found that school-age children in poor families were one-third as likely as those in middle-class families to attend after-school centers. Poor children were less than half as likely to spend their afternoons in lessons designed to expand their academic, athletic, cultural, or creative skills.22 These differences are not surprising, because the cost of lessons and after-school programs is borne almost entirely by parents. Nevertheless, these disparities serve as a reminder that the children facing the steepest personal challenges, in the most threatening surroundings, are often left out of the programs that could support their development.Community Surroundings
As the previous discussion suggested, the daily lives of families and children are shaped not only by economic resources and family structure but also by where they live. Residential mobility among American families has been widespread during this century: Nearly one-fifth (17%) of American children move in any given year.23 Families have left rural areas for the cities, moved from cities to suburbs, and crisscrossed the nation in search of economic opportunity and new lifestyles. In 1920, the country's urban population first outnumbered the rural population, and 70 years later, three-fourths of all Americans lived in cities.24
The growth of the suburbs, which began in earnest after World War II, significantly changed the lives of many children in the middle-class families who predominated in the suburbs.25 Though they gained space and privacy, the children had to depend on their parents for transportation to school and activities. They were surrounded by other children from similar backgrounds, but relatively isolated from family friends and kinfolk. By contrast, in those inner-city neighborhoods where poverty became increasingly concentrated, life took on a more threatening character for many children and families. There, the flight of middle-class residents, businesses, and employment opportunities left behind deteriorating institutions, crime, and social problems.26
To varying extents, communities provide organized programs, activities, and places designed to keep young people safe and busy while they are not in school or with family members. National data shows that nearly half of the schools in suburban areas and in central cities offer extended-day programs to fourth graders, while just over one-fourth of rural schools do so.27 The programs that exist also differ in character from neighborhood to neighborhood. An in-depth study of two Chicago neighborhoods revealed that the suburban community offered three times as many different activities as did the inner-city neighborhood.28 The suburban activity array included arts classes, clubs, sports, and civic groups; in the urban neighborhood, tutoring and prevention programs predominated. Dramatic differences separate children's needs and the choices available to them, depending on where they live.