The hours between 3 pm and 6 pm are critical and often stressful for families, as working parents struggle to figure out what activities their children will participate in or how best to get their children safely home after the school day has ended. Last week, thousands of events were held around the country for the 15th Annual Lights On Afterschool campaign, which helped not only to highlight quality afterschool programs, but also to bring attention to the lack of availability and access to afterschool care that many of those families experience.
This month, the Afterschool Alliance released a new report, America After 3PM, that showed growing enrollment in afterschool care. The report primarily used online surveys and interviews to collect information from parents about their level of participation and views of afterschool programs. According to the findings, about 10 million children nationwide participate in afterschool—a significant increase since the information was last collected in 2009, when a little over 8 million children participated.
But despite the increase in enrollment and the expansion of afterschool programs, the report shows that many families continue to lack access to care. More than 19 million other families said that they would enroll their children in an afterschool program if one were available to them. The Afterschool Alliance, an advocacy organization, argues that the demand for afterschool care is outpacing the available programs, which is especially true for certain categories of families, like low-income households.
The inaccessibility of afterschool care for some families is a growing safety concern, particularly for young children. About 800,000 parents or guardians said they leave their elementary school-aged children alone and unsupervised for fear of losing their jobs, which are not conducive to a 3 pm school pick-up time. The uncertainty of leaving a school-aged child home alone can cause undue stress for many families.
In stark contrast, families that have access to afterschool care feel far more secure. Over 75 percent of African-American and Hispanic working mothers whose children participated in an afterschool program said that having a child enrolled in an aftercare program enabled them to keep their positions at work, as well as gave them peace of mind. The ability to easily enroll a child in aftercare can help many parents provide for their families and ensures that children are supervised.
Lack of access to aftercare is disproportionately greater in some communities. Forty-eight percent and 46 percent of Hispanic and African-American parents, respectively, stated that they were unable to enroll their children in afterschool programs because no program was available in their community, in comparison with 38 percent of Caucasian parents. However, availability is not the only obstacle to ensuring safe, enriching care for children.
The cost of afterschool programs can also be a challenge for some families. As my colleague Clare McCann discusses in a recent blog post, state policies regulating the Child Care and Development Block Grant (funds can be used for children up to age 13 in most cases) vary by state, which can affect the amount of money that parents pay out-of-pocket for afterschool programs. On average, parents across the country spend $113.50 per week for afterschool care, which is beyond some families’ reach. Fifty-six percent of low-income families said that the cost of afterschool care was a factor in their decision not to enroll their children in a program. The lack of access to afterschool care, due to cost and availability, is a huge obstacle for some families.
Many states are seeking to increase the funding and quality of afterschool programs, no doubt recognizing the increasing need for afterschool care due to demands on the workforce, as noted in a recent blog post by my colleague Abbie Lieberman. But even with additional funding from states and new federal dollars, the sheer numbers of parents who can't find access to child care are staggering.
Research shows that children who participate in high-quality afterschool programs can increase their academic achievement in school. So increasing both access to and the quality of afterschool programs is essential. If the focus of early childhood policymakers is to develop the “whole child” and integrate services for children across agencies, afterschool programs are a great place to start.