The Past and Potential Future of the Summer Care Scramble
"We treat all the care that kids need and get outside of school hours as a private good, not a public one."
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When I was a kid, I spent my summers in the weeds. Or, more appropriate to my memory of them, The Weeds, which had three downed locus trees, perfect for forts. It also had endless grasshoppers, perfect for catching, and a pretty solid supply of baby snakes, which periodically found their way through an open door and into the bathtub. My brother and I would walk (exhausting) or bike (fun but also very hot) to the swimming pool for lessons and often ended up spending the whole day there, swimming until our eyes burned from the chlorine. Hours seemed to melt.
When I was at home, I spent a lot of time bored but also easily amused. My mom was there but very much in the background, mostly out in the garden, or doing her own reading, or doing Mom Things (she’d stopped teaching high school chemistry when we moved to Idaho). But she was there, which made it so that I could be roaming around the neighborhood and the house, doing Me Things.
Sometimes we went to Vacation Bible School, sometimes we went camping, but mostly, I was home. Some of my friends’ moms were home too. Others went to go hang out with their easy-going grandparents, who always had the best snacks, or were “watched,” in very loose terms, by an older sibling. One friend was pretty much on his own all day. We were both supervised and unsupervised, but our time was very rarely structured.
I sketch all of this out in detail because summers have a way of imprinting heavily upon us — and I’ve been struck by how some of the expectations of summer, like the expectations of parenting and children’s sports and play, both have and have not changed over the last thirty years. From my vantage, summer feels like it has largely become a site of anxiety: yet another race to find “quality” care, endless spreadsheets of one-week camp options, hustling to sign-up starting in February. But that’s only one corner of the scramble for summer care, and whenever I know that I need a lot more context, I generally find myself looking to sociologist like Jessica Calarco to help me contextualize it, both horizontally (across different classes and identities and attitudes) and vertically (through history).
If you’ve been reading this newsletter for long, you’ll recognize Calarco’s name from one of the most popular Q&As published on the site — “Other countries have safety nets. The United States has women.” Her ongoing work on the intersection of care, work, parenting, and privilege challenges me to be a better and broader thinker — it is at once essential and accessible, and I’m so grateful for her rooted answers to my meandering summer care questions.
You should follow Jessica on Twitter — but you can also find links to her latest research and books here, including her research on inequalities in pandemic parenting and her forthcoming book, Without a Net, inspired in part (!) by our interview here on Culture Study.
The current hair-pulling frustration over summer camp and care planning feels similar to a lot of frustrations that have boiled over during the pandemic: the care situation has been ad hoc and patch work for awhile, and people with various amounts of privilege (related to money but also availability of care networks where they live) have been able to make it work, and other people haven’t been able to make it work and either have to drop out of the workforce or put their kids in less-than-ideal scenarios.
This has been happening and it’s *been* happening because we still structure society as if every home has a full-time caretaker there, even though that’s no longer the case for the vast majority of families (and, depending on class, hadn’t been the case for decades), and we’ve lived with it, but resilience is so low that people just don’t have the wherewithal to live with it any longer.
Basically I’m asking: what are the stakes right now, and have these long been the stakes, but they only began to feel like part of a larger national crisis when middle-class people started feeling it acutely?
The public education system is the closest thing the US has to universal childcare. And that’s problematic for a lot of reasons. Including how it leads us to treat teachers. And how it leaves huge gaps in care. Before school and after school. Spring break and winter break. Holidays. Teacher professional development days. And of course, summer. In the absence of a universal public childcare system, families have to figure out how to fill those gaps on their own.
Essentially, we treat all the care that kids need and get outside of school hours as a private good, not a public one. We act as though childcare is a luxury, not a necessity, despite the fact that only about one in five parents is home with their kids year-round and full-time. When we treat public goods as private goods, we create markets that are ripe for inequality. Because the cost to provide those goods far outpaces what most people who need those goods can afford.
Think about it this way. Public school districts in the US spend, on average, about $12,624 a year per student. Based on a 180-day school year, that’s $70 per kid per day. Which isn’t all that far off from some estimates of the average daily cost of summer camp. So, paying $76 a day for summer camp might seem like a lot of money. But that may just be what it costs to provide not-even-full-time care for kids.
Even if those costs are “reasonable,” however, that doesn’t mean most families can afford to pay. To see why, let’s do some more math. There are about 80 non-weekend days a year when US schools aren’t open. At a rate of $76 a day, that’s a little more than $6,000 a year. And that’s only for one kid. If you have two or three or five—good luck. Meanwhile, the median income for households with kids is about $85,000, and more than 20 percent of households with kids earn less than $40,000 a year. (For Black and Latino households with kids, the median income is even lower—$54,000 and $59,000—and the percent of families with incomes under $40,000 is even higher—38% and 31%). How many families, then, can afford to spend $6,000 or $12,000—or more—just on gap-time care?
Now, people like Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson have argued that if families can’t afford to pay for the care their kids need, then too bad—that’s on them. His full quote: “People decide to have families and become parents. That's something they need to consider when they make that choice. I've never really felt it was society's responsibility to take care of other people's children.” And that isn’t some statement pulled from the 1950s archives. It’s from earlier this year.
That quote feels so icky, in part, because it ignores all the ways the US has historically and systematically denied families—particularly mothers, and especially Black and Latina mothers—the opportunity to earn the kind of money they would need to cover those costs on their own. Sociologist Leah Ruppanner and her colleagues, for example, recently found that in states with higher childcare costs and shorter school days, moms are less likely to be working for pay full-time. That means less money coming in in the short-term, especially for the almost 25 percent of US kids living with a single mom. It also means less money in the long-term, because stepping out of the workforce or stepping back into part-time work stalls women’s salary growth, even if they eventually go back to work full-time. Yet, because the cost of childcare is so high, and because access to care is so uneven, many mothers have no choice but to cut back their hours or drop out of the workforce temporarily while their kids are little, even if that makes it harder for their families to afford the gap-time care they need later on.
Meanwhile, we haven’t even considered the supply side of the problem, where the challenges for gap-time care providers like summer camps run parallel to those we’ve seen with preschool and childcare. Preschools and childcare centers are facing a huge staffing crisis, to the point where 16,000 centers/providers had to close up shop over the past two years. My own four-year-old’s preschool/childcare center is currently operating on reduced hours, because they don’t have enough staff to stay within state-mandated student-teacher ratios beyond 4:15pm every day. Finding enough staff is a challenge because most centers can’t afford to offer benefits or raise wages much beyond the minimum and still keep costs low enough to keep families coming in the door.
Summer camps and other gap-time care providers face a similar set of challenges. That’s part of why camps often rely on students as counselors (that’s how I spent a few of my own summers in high school and college). How many other workers can take an underpaid, summer-only job? Now, however, with companies like McDonalds raising their minimum wage to $15 an hour, it’ll likely get harder to find high school and college students who are willing to work for the $7.25-an-hour federal minimum or even for $10 or $12 an hour.
Ultimately, then, camps and other gap-time care providers may struggle this year to find enough workers. If that’s the case, and if those organizations can’t get enough donations or grant dollars to fill in the holes, budget-wise, then they only have a couple of options. Jack up prices enough to make wages more enticing. Shrink the number of kids they can take to fit the number of staff they can find. Or shut down and maybe try again next year.
None of those options, meanwhile, are great for families. Because they mean higher prices and/or more competition for affordable care.
Earlier this week, I asked people on Twitter to tell me about what their families did for care during the summer if they didn’t have a caregiver who could stay home. The answers were incredibly diverse — some people went along with their parents to jobs, some were allowed to stay home alone from a young age, some went to their extended family in their country of origin for the entirety of the summer, but I’d say the majority answered that they had some sort of mix of low-key day camp (Boys & Girls Club, YMCA), cheap babysitters (older women who’d watch kids in their home, teen babysitters who’d come over to supervise) and older relatives.
Some people still really rely on any/all of the above options for affordable care, but so many of them seem harder or impossible to access: many people don’t live near family; their parents are too old to supervise active children all day; teen babysitters are in shorter supply, because teens are either working service jobs and/or padding their resumes for college applications; many people don’t know their neighbors (and certainly not well enough to ask them to sit); the general decline in civic and religious involvement also means less exposure to the sorts of networks that would introduce parents to potential sitters and caregivers; and continually contracting understandings of when and how a child can be considered “safe.”
The atrophying of care options feels like a symptom of a larger structural shift — a weakening of ‘weak’ ties, but also something else. What’s the something else? I realize this is a big ask but if anyone can answer it, it’s a sociologist.
I think it’s important to start off here by noting that lots of kids—most kids—may actually be spending summers much the same way as their parents did. A 2018 study from the New America Foundation’s Better Life Lab looked at the summer care arrangements used by parents with kids ages 4 to 14, and they found that only 26 percent of parents sent their kids to day camps, and even fewer than that—9 percent—sent their kids to camp overnight. Another 2018 study from the National Center for Education Statistics found similar patterns when looking at what kids do during the summer after kindergarten. In that group, only about a quarter attend any kind of camp (24% day camp; 1% overnight). That study, meanwhile, also found that camp attendance is highly stratified. Kids whose parents have bachelor’s or graduate degrees are more than six times as likely to attend camp as kids whose parents have, at most, a high school diploma (44% versus 7%).
What do kids do if they’re not going to camp? Most kids have informal summer arrangements—kids may be home with a parent (44%), or with an extended family member (16%), or just home by themselves (17%). In the interviews with moms of young children that I’ve done for my current research, quite a few have talked about how they made their own career decisions around the fact that their kids would be home in the summers and after school. Some have opted to find jobs close to family so that grandma can be the childcare provider during the summer, even if they could’ve moved farther away for higher paying or higher status job. Others have opted out of the workforce or are working only very part-time (working the night shift as DoorDash drivers, for example, or working a few days a month as a physical therapist), with no definite plans to return to full-time work.
Still others have chosen full-time careers—like teacher or school bus driver or school nurse—that aren’t year-round positions. That includes one mom I interviewed, who I’ll call Monica, who quit a high-paying corporate job and went back to school to become a teacher—just like her mother before her—so that she could be home in the afternoons and during the summers and during other school breaks with her kids.
So, how do we square these numbers with the perception that summer has gotten way more complicated over time?
On the one hand, there have been some shifts in the social fabric that affect parents’ calculations of what to do during the summer with their kids. Consider, for example, the option of kids staying home alone during the summer or being cared for by a neighborhood teen. Since the 1980s, when many of today’s parents were kids, states have passed laws setting minimum ages for kids to stay home alone. In Illinois, for example, kids have to be fourteen to stay home alone, let alone babysit other kids. By the time I was fourteen, I had years of babysitting experience—my parents started leaving me in charge of my own younger siblings when I was nine, and I started babysitting other people’s kids the summer before I turned twelve.
Given the shifting laws and the shifts in norms that have come with them, parents who can afford or find other caregiving options may now be more reluctant to leave their kids unsupervised, even if their state doesn’t have a strict minimum age for being alone. And parents may also be more reluctant to leave their kids with teenagers, who may now have a lot less babysitting experience than previous generations’ teenagers did. The parents of those teenagers, meanwhile, may push their kids to pursue summer activities that’ll look good on their college applications, rather than try to make a few bucks at a summer job. That’s consistent with data showing that rates of teen employment have fallen dramatically since the late 90s when many of today’s parents were teens. In the 90s, more than 50 percent of teens 16-19 were working for pay; since 2010, that number has hovered around 35 percent.
It's important to note, however, that these shifts toward a more “care-free” childhood aren’t universal. Plenty of lower-income parents and single parents, for example, don’t have much choice but to leave their children alone after school or during the summer, even if it could run them afoul of the law. Plenty of teens, meanwhile, have to work to help support their families, and those are disproportionately low-income Black and Latino kids.
That brings me to the on-the-other-hand part of my answer, which is that the “things have changed so much since I was kid” responses you got on Twitter may be a function of the fact that Twitter (or at least a particular slice of it) is an elite professional space. Consider, for example, the idea that a lot of families with young kids don’t live near extended family, or the idea that parents’ own elderly parents may be unable to provide care. Both of those are true for some families—including mine. The thing is though – my family isn’t typical. Or at least, we’re only typical of those elite professional families I mentioned before.
Surveys show that the average adult in the US lives only 18 miles from their mother. And 80 percent of US adults live less than about two hours’ drive away. The one big exception to that rule, meanwhile, is the kind of elite professional family I mentioned before. Studies show that adults with college and graduate degrees are more likely than other adults to live far from family, and that’s even more true for dual-earner, elite professional couples—a lawyer and an academic, for example—than for it is for more middle-class or working-class couples—like a high school teacher and a social worker, or a plumber and a nurse.
Meanwhile, and in terms of parents with young kids whose parents are elderly and unable to help with childcare, that’s disproportionately an elite professional thing, too. Back in the early 1980s, when many of today’s parents were young, about 75 percent of mothers had their first child by the time they were 25, and the women who waited longer were disproportionately those rare women who got college degrees. Today, the average mother is having children a little later than the average mom in 1980—only about 50 percent of moms have their first child by their they’re 25. That shift, in turn, has been driven by the fact that there are a lot more college-going women today than there were 40 years ago. At the same time, women whose own parents went to college are still disproportionately likely to get a college degree, and they’re also disproportionately likely to work in elite professional jobs.
So basically, those elite professional parents we talked about before, they’re hitting the older parent problem twice over. Because their parents may have had them when they were older, and they’re now likely having their kids when they’re older, as well. And that means that the grandparents on whom elite professional parents might have otherwise relied during the summers may be disproportionately unable to provide full-time care.
Ultimately, then, while most families would likely benefit from a more accessible and affordable set of summer care options, the feeling that “summer is so different now” is far from a universal one. Most parents don’t take part in the “summer scramble” to find and sign up for half a dozen different specialty and overnight camps before the slots disappear. And only 20 percent of US parents pay more than $3,000 for all of their kids’ summer care.
The reality is that there *are* more affordable (or sliding scale) programs for kids, but many middle-class parents don’t consider them the “right” sort of care, which is to say, the sort of care that is considered in some way edifying and pairs them with their friends (oftentimes, people in their same socioeconomic level). I know you and I (and many readers of this newsletter) are part of the Casey Stockstill Admiration Society, and this sort of emphasis on “just trying to find what’s best for our kids” reminds me of her work of de facto preschool segregation, and differences in structured and unstructured play, the types of teachers leading the programs, modes of discipline/surveillance, and more.
For bourgeois parents, how much of the stress around finding “appropriate” care is related to what sociologist Annette Lareau famously calls “concerted cultivation”? And what are the consequences of continuing to normalize that pursuit, both for parents and children?
As you mentioned, many communities do have lower-cost and logistically reasonable summer camp options. Camps that are open for the whole summer or almost the whole summer and provide care that covers all the hours of a typical workday. Those camps might be offered by the local parks department, the local public school district, the Boys and Girls Club, or the YMCA. And they might offer scholarships or sliding-scale fees. The camp my 7-year-old has attended for the past two summers, for example, is open the whole summer (except Memorial Day and the 4th of July) and costs us $130 a week for care that runs from 8am to 3pm, or $175 a week with the extended day option until 6pm. We have a few other options that are similarly priced or lower for similar hours, but we go with that one because it’s within walking distance of our house. (Being logistically easy is, in my view, a highly underrated quality of summer options for kids).
Now, these kinds of camps aren’t fancy. They often can’t afford to be. The counselors are mostly local high school and college students. And they might have special days or field trips from time to time, but most days are a run-through of standard activities—games like freeze tag or hide-and-seek, simple craft projects, swimming, and maybe movies when it rains. Despite that basicness, though, these camps may fill up quickly, because they’re such a useful option for parents who work year-round and full-time.
At the same time, and because of that basicness, there are also bougie parents who avoid these options, even if it means scrambling to sign their kids up for half a dozen (or more) different camps and experiences, and even if it means spending half their summer schlepping kids around town.
Why? Well, some of those bougie parents seem to have a romanticized idea of summer camp, especially the almost-lord-of-the-flies-style sleep-away camps where kids reign supreme. Maybe they were among the lucky or privileged few who went to those kinds of camps themselves, and now they’re nostalgic for their own days as campers as kids. Or maybe they didn’t have that kind of opportunity, but they saw camps like that depicted on shows like Salute Your Shorts or movies like The Parent Trap, Camp Nowhere, Addams Family Values, or even Friday the 13th, and now, as strivers, they want that experience for their own kids.
Meanwhile, other bougie parents seem to be assuming that if they want their kids to keep their edge in the competition for elite college admissions, then they have to use summers for enrichment, the same way they do with out-of-school time the rest of the year. That might mean math camp and coding camp and science camp. Or it might mean intensive sports camps designed to help kids have a better shot at getting admitted to elite colleges as athletes, even if they can’t make it in based on grades. (Sociologists have found that athletes get a big leg-up in elite college admissions, and that the students who get admitted to elite colleges as athletes are disproportionately wealthy, white kids.)
Now, some of these parents might argue that they’re sending their kids to specialty camps because they don’t want to take spots from kids whose families need the lower-cost, full-day options. But as Sociologist Casey Stockstill mentioned on Twitter, that may just be a convenient narrative. And their avoidance of those “basic” options may ultimately work to reduce the supply of those options, even for families who need them most. How? Well, consider a sliding-scale model. If there aren’t enough families willing to pay top-of-the-scale prices, then the camp either has to increase prices or reduce the number of spots available at the other end of the scale. Under that kind of model, if parents say “we don’t want to take a spot from someone who needs it,” what they may actually be saying is “we don’t want to pay more than what this basic camp seems worth to attend just so someone else can attend for a lower fee.”
Meanwhile, if those bougie parents really cared about summer care equity, they’d be demanding broad-scale policy changes. Maybe lengthening the school year by a few weeks and then passing laws that guarantee at least six weeks of paid time off for all workers, so more parents can spend the whole summer with their kids. Or maybe investing public money to provide universal, full-day, free-or-low-cost summer options through the public school system or the local parks department for all kids who want to attend.
Most bougie parents, however, aren’t clamoring for those kinds of options. And if bougie parents aren’t the ones demanding a change to the current system of schooling and care for children, there’s a good chance that school districts and other public officials won’t bend over backward to make that change.
So how do we fix this? Is the answer a more standardized system that eliminates the need or ability to compete? Is it revisiting how we think about what kids “need” in a summer? Is it getting 11 year olds like me to babysit for $2 an hour again? Various models make me hopeful, but I think we’re hindered by the same ideological resistance as when it comes to childcare reform, just generally: a large number if not majority of elected officials (not voters, but elected officials) still believe that providing affordable, accessible high-quality care encourages women to abandon their role as caregivers and undermines the ‘integrity of the family,’ etc. etc. Are you at all hopeful about a way forward?
Since I already pointed to a few possible solutions, the question I’ll answer here instead is: why haven’t we already done more? And on that front, I think it’s important to note who benefits from our current system with its big gaps in summer care.
Let’s consider first that proposal to lengthen the school year a bit and fill in the rest with guaranteed paid leave for workers that they can use to stay home in the summer with their kids. Employers and wealthy people have a big disincentive to support that kind of policy, because they’re the ones who would pay the costs in terms of lost profits (from workers spending fewer weeks in the office) and higher taxes (which would be needed to pay teachers and staff more for extra labor and outfit lots of outdated school buildings to stay open with air conditioning through summer months).
Meanwhile, even elite professional parents don’t have a huge incentive to support that kind of policy. Because they’re disproportionately likely to have the kinds of jobs that already offer paid vacation time. The average full-time blue-collar or service worker gets only seven paid holidays every year, and only ten paid vacation days, even after ten years on the job. Hourly and part-time employees, in turn, aren’t required to get any paid leave at all. Companies like Google, by contrast, not only provide paid time off on federal holidays (usually 10-11 days a year) but also give all workers a minimum of 20 paid vacation days on top of the standard holidays, with some of the more elite employees getting 30 paid vacation days or more. Which means that a lot of bougie parents can already take a few weeks off during the summer to go to Europe or to the beach with their kids. And they don’t have much incentive to extend those kinds of benefits to other families, because that could drive up competition for hotel rooms and airline tickets, and ultimately make those fancy vacations more expensive for them in the end.
Next, let’s consider the idea of universal, full-day, free-or-low-cost summer options through the public school system or the local parks department for all kids who want to attend. Once again, we run into the tax problem. Those programs would likely cost as much per kid per day as providing public school currently does ($70), and possibly even more, since we’d run into the old buildings and air conditioning problem again too. So, there’s little incentive for corporations and wealthy people—who’d have to foot most of that increased tax bill—to get on board. This time, we’d also run up against the whole summer camp industry.
By some estimates, that’s an $18 billion-a-year industry, and some of the most expensive camps in the US have profit margins of 25 or 30 percent. That’s a lot to risk if there’s a universal, free-or-low-cost public option that’s highly appealing to their current clientele. So, to keep their current profits protected, those camps have interest in marketing to bougie parents and persuading them that the “basic” option wouldn’t be good enough for their kids. And, unfortunately, as we’ve seen with the public school system more generally, the more privileged parents who opt out of the basic public system, the easier it is for policymakers to justify cutting taxes and thus undercutting the funding for the basic public system and the services that basic public system can provide.
Ultimately, we don’t have a better summer system because the people with the power to build one have little incentive to do so — and may have an even bigger incentive to keep the status quo in place.
You can follow Jessica Calarco on Twitter here — and buy her books here and here.
And here’s this week’s subscriber threads, if you missed — What You’re Watching (so many good ones this week!) and YOUR NEMESIS, EARNED OR OTHERWISE.
This Week’s Things I Read and Loved: