When his parents couldn't afford to send him to summer camp, Port Lau settled in for a summer at home: Eating. Sleeping. Playing video games.
With no one supervising him most of the time, it could have felt like a summer of leisure in New York City. Instead, it was excruciatingly boring.
That's the kind of school break a rising number of kids can look forward to this year as budget crises in places such as New York, Washington, D.C., Houston and Detroit rob children of the activities and programs that have long defined summer in the city for urban youngsters. Swimming pools are being closed; recreation centers are locking their doors; library summer reading programs are suffering; openings for short-term jobs have evaporated.
Lau's vacations of boredom ended the summer he was 14, when a city-funded program got him his first job — doing filing and clerical work at the state Supreme Court in Brooklyn. Now 18, the college freshman credits the experience with landing him a string of jobs and internships — including one for which he'll be traveling to Germany this summer.
But in New York City, the youth-employment program that got him the job is facing a cut of more than $15 million, which means that this year the program is slated to have 10,000 fewer spots for young people from the ages of 14 to 24 — a reduction of nearly one-third.
To Lau, it's one cutback that just doesn't make sense.
"We are the students of the future. We're going to be the ones who make New York prosper," he said. "So why are they trying to limit us?"
The stories are similar elsewhere. In Washington, D.C., a summer camp for children whose families come from Ethiopia is losing its city funding, as are more than half the city-funded summer-camp programs serving low-income communities. In Detroit, the youth summer-jobs program is expected to be down to just 1,200 spots — cut from 7,500 two years ago.
This year and last, declines in revenue and reductions in spending across the country are steeper than at any other point in the last quarter-century, according to a National League of Cities survey.
"It's not necessarily that youth programs are being singled out, it's that so many other things have already been cut, and everything needs to be examined at this point," said Christiana McFarland, research manager for the league. "There's no more wiggle room in the budget."
Some city officials are trying to fight back with private partnerships. In New York, companies from American Airlines to the firm that runs the Empire State Building have donated $3 million in cash or jobs to the youth-employment program.
Also on the chopping block in New York City's proposed budget: four swimming pools, New York Public Library children's program cuts that would result in 70 percent fewer youngsters being served, more than 6,000 public-school teaching jobs, family literacy programs and outreach for homeless youth.
"This is certainly not going to be the year of the child in New York," said Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, one of a number of local officials who have objected to the cutbacks, saying they will most hurt the city's middle class and working poor.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said the changes in city services are regrettable but necessary because of harsh state and federal funding cuts.
For parents coping with the unique challenges of urban child-rearing, it can be hard to imagine summer without public programs.
"In New York City, it's not like we can open our doors and all of our kids can run out and play," Manhattan resident Tracy Ranson said while keeping an eye on her 2-year-old son at a crowded playground. "You need some kind of program for these kids."
Nearby, Joe Exley recalled how the city's libraries and their daily reading programs had helped inspire his daughter Fiona's love of books. After seeing his daughter, now almost 4, experience the programs with a diverse range of New York City children, Exley said that the idea of further cutbacks was frustrating.
"Any social programs dealing with kids seem like the last things that should be cut," he said.
At city-funded summer camps in Washington, D.C., kids kick soccer balls and team up for rugby games in between academic enrichment activities. This year, money for the camps disappeared entirely due to budget woes, but the non-profit DC Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation was able to find $1 million in unused funds to keep about half of last year's 3,000 camper slots open, said Natasha Marshall, grants manager for the trust. Specialized camps for Asian-American children and students in foster care are among those that lost their city funds.
In Detroit, budget makers managed to stave off further recreation cutbacks this year, holding services at the already reduced level they'd been cut to in the fall of 2009. That's when the struggling city's recreation centers began shutting down two days a week and cutting back to eight hours a day — down from 12 to 14 hours, said Alicia Minter, director of the Detroit Recreation Department. Half the city-sponsored summer camps were shuttered.
Still, shortfalls in other areas have those who work with children bracing for change in Detroit.
At the volunteer-run Summer in the City camp program, co-founder Ben Falik is readying for the possibility that the camp may need to set up in the park if the school that usually partners with the program shuts down due to cutbacks. And thousands fewer youngsters will have government-funded summer jobs in the city, because of cuts that have returned work force investment funding to the level it was at in 1990.
All over, many libraries say they are reducing hours, laying off staff and in some cases running out of money for new books, although there's no way to tell exactly how many children's summer programs have been cut. Without summer-time academic activities, educators say children already on the edge can fall further behind come September.
In Oakland, Calif., where municipal leaders are considering a budget that would shutter 14 of 18 library branches, librarians are trying to fight back with "story time flash mobs" in which they grab bullhorns and read aloud in public to draw attention to the funding threat.
"We're really trying to advocate for story time as an activity. It helps students who are not yet reading — or even talking — in their literacy ability. This is not some nice thing we can pick back up when the economy is better," librarian Amy Martin said.
Political observers say that cutbacks affecting children, however painful, are a hard choice made necessary by the current economic climate.
When performing triage on bleeding city budgets, policing and security must be the priority, because rising crime can hurt every other aspect of city life, said E.J. McMahon, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute.
If "you've got to balance out some summer park programs against policing the parks, I think you've got to choose policing the parks. It's a tough choice but that may be what it comes down to in some places," he said.
That seems to be the approach of Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who earlier this month proposed a budget that she argued maintained public safety as the city's top priority — avoiding the layoffs of police officers and firefighters while closing eight swimming pools and seven community centers, and eliminating city-funded youth sports leagues.
But some children's advocates argue that recreation can add to community safety and security just as much as policing.
In New Orleans, Mayor Mitchell Landrieu this year fulfilled a campaign promise to boost city funding for children's recreation facilities and summer programs, despite the city's economic difficulties. While last summer, about 700 children participated in sports and literacy activities through the city's summer camps for children ages 5 to 18, this year the city is expecting to serve 5,000 campers with the help of local organizations, private partnerships and doubled city funds, said Gina Warner, the executive director of the city's Partnership for Youth Development.
The city — where nine out of 10 recreation sites were damaged by Hurricane Katrina — will be opening 12 pools this year, up from seven the year before and three the year before that. And libraries will be coordinating with the city summer camps to keep children reading, Warner said.
Warner said that while her city faces the same economic struggles as its counterparts around the country, elected officials see the New Orleans summer programs as not only an investment in children, but also a crime-prevention tool.
"We're a very tourism-dependent city, and so we can't afford to have children who don't have positive places to be during the summer," she said.
Associated Press Writer Kristen Wyatt contributed to this report from Denver.
Samantha Gross can be reached at www.twitter.com/samanthagross