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Study Ties Mother's Schedule, 'Latchkey' Status

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A mother's work schedule is more significant in determining whether a child will be left home alone after school than such factors as income, education, or marital status, a new survey shows.

The report, released last week by the Census Bureau, says that children ages 5 to 11 whose mothers work full-time are four times more likely to be "latchkey'' youngsters than the children of part-time workers, even after other demographic variables are factored in.

Martin O'Connell, the chief of the bureau's Fertility Statistics Branch and one of the report's authors, noted that the percentage of children ages 5 to 14 classified as latchkey children has been "fairly invariant'' since 1985, when the bureau began collecting such data. In 1991, about 8 percent of the school-age children of employed mothers were latchkey children.

The "aging of the child'' is another major determinant of latchkey status, Mr. O'Connell noted. Only one-third of the latchkey children were 5 to 11, while two-thirds were in the 12-to-14 age range.

The report, based on 1991 data gathered in the bureau's Survey of Income and Program Participation, also says children living in suburban areas are nearly twice as likely to be left alone after school than those in rural areas.

"One possible explanation for this finding is that parents may feel more comfortable in leaving their children home when there are neighbors and other children living nearby,'' Mr. O'Connell said.

The report also showed that children in the Northeast and South are less likely to be latchkey youngsters than those in the Midwest.

Father Care Up

For preschool children, the report documents a decline in the use of family day care--defined as care by nonrelatives in the provider's home--and a rise in the share of preschoolers cared for by fathers while their mothers work.

The percentage of preschoolers in family day care fell from 24 percent in 1988 to 18 percent in 1991, the report said, while the share of children cared for by fathers while their mothers worked rose from 15 percent to 20 percent.

Mr. O'Connell suggested that the drop in family day care "can be traced to an effort to keep child-care expenses down'' by relying more on family members. Grandparents cared for about 16 percent of children under 5 whose mothers worked, the report says, but father care has risen more significantly.

The report suggests the father-care trend, which was examined in another report last year by Mr. O'Connell, is also related to economics. Fathers were far more likely to be caregivers if they were unemployed or working part-time.

Fathers were also more likely to be caregivers if either the mother or the father worked a non-day shift, so they could "offset each other's hours,'' Mr. O'Connell noted.

Day care provided in the home in general is also more prevalent among preschoolers whose mothers work non-day shifts.

Other findings include:

  • Families are more likely to use organized child-care facilities for preschoolers if the mother works full-time and family income is at least $4,500 a month.
  • Fewer poor women pay for child care than those with incomes above the poverty line. But poor women spend 27 percent of their income on child care, compared with 7 percent for others.

Information on the report, "Who's Minding the Kids?'' can be obtained from the Fertility Statistics Branch, Population Division, Bureau of the Census, Washington, D.C. 20233; (301) 763-5303.

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