The Opportunity Gap—A National Problem

Tiffani Chin and Meredith Phillips followed a small group of children all summer and, based on that, present a vivid picture of the disparities in summer opportunities between lower- and higher-income children. Are their findings relevant to communities across the country? Two nationally representative surveys of children and parents regarding out-of-school time by Public Agenda indicate that they are: While the majority of higher-income parents are happy with their children's opportunities, lower-income parents are struggling to patch together activities. Here are some of Public Agenda's key findings.


There is compelling evidence that organized, structured activities during the out-of-school hours play a valuable and a highly valued role in the lives of our nation's young people, but low-income and minority families are far more likely to be dissatisfied with the quality, affordability, and availability of options in their communities.

These are just two among many important findings in All Work and No Play? Listening to What Kids and Parents Really Want from Out-of-School Time, a joint project of The Wallace Foundation and Public Agenda that explores how young people spend time when they're not in school and what youngsters and their parents want from out-of-school-time activities. The study is based primarily on two national random sample surveys conducted in June 2004, one with 609 middle and high school students and another with 1,003 parents of school-age children.

The study provides a wealth of information about the very real challenges faced by low-income and minority families when it comes to finding productive things for their children to do when they aren't in school. Viewing the data through the lenses of income and race reveals a story of the haves versus the have-nots—a story of too many families under real pressure and not getting the kinds of out-of-school opportunities that could genuinely help their children thrive. Whether or not parents or students are generally happy with their options is strongly influenced by these demographic characteristics. Here are some of the key findings on the challenges that low-income and minority families face.

Whether it's quality, affordability, or availability, it's harder to find if you are a low-income or minority parent.1 Figure 1 shows both groups are considerably less likely to say:

• It's easy to find things that are affordable.

• It's easy to find things that are run by trustworthy adults.

• It's easy to find things that are conveniently located.

• It's easy to find things that are of high quality.

• It's easy to find things that are age appropriate.

• It's easy to find things that are interesting to their child.

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Concerns about negative societal influences preying on children are magnified among low-income and minority parents.

• 39 percent of low-income parents say the best reason for children to be involved in organized activities and programs in their non-school hours is to keep them busy and out of trouble versus 23 percent of higher-income parents (minority versus white: 35 percent versus 25 percent).

The majority of parents—regardless of income or race—say the summer stands out as the most difficult time to find productive things for kids to do, but keeping youngsters busy during the summer is especially tough for low-income and minority parents. As Figure 2 shows, they are more likely to say:

• Their kids "really don't have enough good options" for things to do during the summer months.

• They are concerned that they won't be able to afford things their child would want to do during the summer.

• They are concerned that their child will be bored during the summer.

• They are concerned that there will not be enough options to capture their child's interest during the summer.

• They are concerned that they will have trouble finding childcare during the summer.

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By extremely wide margins, low-income and minority parents are considerably more likely to want activities and programs that emphasize academic learning. Both groups are more likely to say:

• Their child needs extra help in school (low versus higher income: 67 percent versus 44 percent; minority versus white: 61 percent versus 45 percent).

• They are concerned their child will fall behind on academics during the summer months (low versus higher income: 60 percent versus 32 percent; minority versus white: 56 percent versus 33 percent).

• The best match for their own child would be an activity or program that focused on "providing extra academic preparation and skills" rather than sports or the arts (low versus higher income: 39 percent versus 35 percent2; minority versus white: 56 percent versus 32 percent).

Activities and programs that focus on learning appeal to low-income and minority students disproportionately. These students are more likely to say:

• They would be interested in a summer program that helped kids keep up with schoolwork or prepare for the next grade (low versus higher income: 69 percent versus 51 percent; minority versus white: 79 percent versus 49 percent).

• They would "very much" like an after-school program that focuses mainly on academic preparation (low versus higher income: 39 percent versus 24 percent; minority versus white: 45 percent versus 23 percent).

Excerpted with permission of Public Agenda.


1. Low-income parents reported annual household income of less than $25,000 per year; higher-income parents reported $50,000 or more. Minority parents include those who identify as either African American or Hispanic.

2. This difference is not statistically significant.

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American Educator, Summer 2005