Young teens still need after-school supervision

September 30, 1997|By SUSAN REIMER

MY SON, NOW 13, believes he has outgrown the need for afterschool supervision while his father and I work. And apparently the federal government agrees.

Since he is no longer 12, he is no longer eligible under the Dependent Care Tax Credit, so his father and I no longer qualify for the modest tax break we received for the huge checks we have been writing for day-care services and camps all these years.

This tax credit never amounted to more than a few hundred dollars a year, and it was not the reason we provided for his care after school, but it was an endorsement for our thinking that 6 was not the right age for a child to come home to an empty house.

Well, 13 isn't the right age, either. And not just because he might absent-mindedly leave the toaster oven on and burn the place down.

Two recent reports show that kids do more than watch too much television when unsupervised after school. Half of all violent juvenile crime occurs between 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on school days, according to one of these reports. Most babies born to unwed teen-age mothers are conceived in the girl's bed after school, according to another.

And the children most at risk are middle-school kids -- caught in the dead zone between elementary-school after-care programs and high-school after-school activities. The children with the most unformed decision-making capacity -- and the ones most likely to act on it -- are left to their own devices.

Meanwhile, their parents are caught between one branch of government that issues dire warnings about after-school mayhem and another branch that withdraws even token encouragement to pay for the supervision of these kids.

Talk about your mixed messages. What are we thinking?

The dependent-care tax benefit dates back to 1954, written into law apparently out of compassion for widowers, widows, divorced parents or working mothers whose husbands were incapacitated. It amounted to only $12 a week -- low even for the 1950s -- and was phased out once the family income reached $5,100 a year.

During the 1960s and the 1970s, it was liberalized and expanded and, in 1976, Congress changed it to a tax credit instead of a tax deduction so it would benefit families -- presumably low-income families -- that did not itemize their deductions.

Today, the tax credit is criticized for benefiting the middle class more than low-income families -- another fact that illustrates the muddled thinking on this topic:

Middle-class kids are just as likely to make bad decisions as poor kids, because risk-taking is a function of adolescence, not economics. Just ask the parents of the children in the wealthy suburban subdivision near my home who discovered that their kids were taking turns breaking into each other's houses for liquor, sex and car keys while the moms and dads were at work.

The problem with the dependent-care credit is not that it benefits the wrong families. The problem is that it doesn't benefit all families long enough. In 1988, Congress adjusted the eligibility down from age 15 to under 13.

Likewise, the benefit has shrunk over time. The sliding scale that governs the family income has not been adjusted for inflation since 1981, and the qualifying child-care payment (which amounts to about $1.15 per hour, per child) has not been increased since 1982.

At the same time, middle-school sports programs disappeared because of the high costs of liability insurance, uniforms and coaching. And community-based after-school programs dried up along with the funds that paid for them.

And every year, more of the neighborhood mothers who might have kept an eye on the neighborhood kids return to work. More working parents, who might have taken some financial encouragement from the dependent-care tax credit, rationalize that their world-wise 13-year-olds are old enough to be left alone for a couple of hours after school.

They are not.

This is not to say that all kids will become teen-age "super-predators," as conservative pundit William J. Bennett fears, if they are left alone between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. Or that all girls will drag boys off the bus and under their pink rosebud coverlets.

And I don't believe a modest tax credit requiring a mountain of record-keeping will motivate parents to joyously pay for after-school jailers for their kids.

But let's not kid ourselves. The tax code in this country reflects our social priorities -- for good or ill -- and it should reflect our commitment to look after kids who are not young adults, but tall children. The government has an immediate and a long-term stake in the supervision -- nay, the nurturing -- of our teens.

My son is embarrassed that he is not allowed to come home to an empty house.

Congress should be ashamed to think he ought to.

Pub Date: 9/30/97

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