Impact Guide To The Summer

Summer Vacation Really Sucks for Poor Kids and Their Parents

Americans in lower income brackets sweat the summer months in more ways than one.
July 7, 2017, 2:45pm
Photo via Flickr user Bryan Guzman.

As research has shown us again and again and again: It is expensive to be poor. You might think the time of year that aggravates this fact the most is around the holidays, what with the heat bills and performative consumerism. But it's not. The worst time to be poor is in the summer.

For one thing, there's the heat. People in lower income brackets are more likely to be working manual labor jobs and also less likely to have decent air-conditioning, and if you don't think heat stroke kills people in this country routinely you are very wrong. And when the temperature rises, so does violent crime, which like pretty everything else in the world is going to disproportionately affect lower-income communities. When the temperature really rises, people just want to get away from it, but that is a privilege reserved for the wealthy, who not only get to take the good parts of summer and escape the bad, but managed to ruin the word entirely by turning it into a verb.


Summer is shit for poor people across the board, but it's especially shit for poor families. Summer vacation means no more free (theoretically) nutritious school lunches; low-income students at public schools can usually count on at least one government-subsidized meal a day, maybe two. In some cases minors can access summer food stamp programs intended to compensate for this, but it's not exactly a silver bullet. Cash-strapped parents suddenly have to spend a lot more on food, and the least expensive options, of course, are also the least healthy.

Of all the strains low-income families feel come summertime, the biggest is from child care. Summer vacation is a nice idea, but it's basically designed under the assumption that every child has two parents, only one of whom is working. More than a quarter of American children live with a single parent.

Summer is shit for poor people across the board.

In 2013, nearly half the country's single-mother households made well under $30,000 per year. Child care around the country routinely costs single mothers more than half their total income. That is insane. It informs the 43 percent of new mothers who decide to leave their jobs. About 10 times as many single mothers live below the poverty line as single fathers. Sure, there are more of them, but perhaps this also has something to do with the fact that single mothers who work full-time, year-round, make 58 cents to the dollar of a single father who does the same (that's an average. The worst-off are single-mother Latinas -- 49 cents to the dollar. Call your congressperson). And anyway, the disproportionate percentage of female single parents compared to male isn't exactly an argument for a healthy and just society.

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Advice for budget-friendly child care yields recommendations for stuff like summer programs at the YMCA for less than $200 per week, which is … still a lot. Summer camps have become so expensive that to suggest them in this context is embarrassing. They're a painful reminder of the travesty that so many resources are inaccessible to the poor, for whom they would be life-changing, are within casual reach of the affluent, for whom they are entertaining.

When kids are out of school for an extended period of time, they forget some of what they've learned, a phenomenon called summer learning loss. Students who are financially comfortable bounce back fairly quickly, because their summers are filled with tutors and camps and just a generally higher level of intellectual stimulation. Poor students, who are not so occupied, forget more and take a longer time to recover. This cycle demonstrably widens the achievement gap each year, contributing to a higher dropout rate and decreased income later in life.

There is still one hero within this seasonal mess, and that would be your local public library. It's free. It's usually one of the safer places you can send kids to occupy their time.

In a better world, some of this could at least be counteracted with a good summer job, which for obvious reasons lower-income teens need the most anyway. But here the season shits on them yet again. Poorer teens are the ones likely to be passed over by employers, who perceive them as inferior to their more affluent peers in terms of education, intelligence, social skills, race -- you get the idea.

There is still one hero within this seasonal mess, and that would be your local public library. It's free. It's usually one of the safer places you can send kids to occupy their time. Rich kids aren't immune to summer learning loss because they all have tutors; a lot of it's because they tend to read more. Everyone forgets math over vacation, but it's only low-income students who show a decrease in reading comprehension, and there's evidence that they avoid that when they're stimulated. Like when they learn new words.

Child care programs for low-income parents are in rough shape nationwide, but there's interest from organizations and local governments trying to improve it. You can call your representatives and urge them to prioritize low-income child care; those calls really do matter. If you have the time or money to spare, you can invest it in camps and other summer enrichment programs for low-income students in your area. Or in city parks, which host a lot of free events in the summer; churches and community centers, too. And why not donate to your local library, so it can fix its air-conditioning among other things.