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Closing The Gap: How Income Inequality Hurts Youth Sports

Children from low and middle income American families are dropping sports at an alarming rate, but it is possible to eliminate the opportunity gap.

Sports can teach children cooperation, teamwork, and social skills, while keeping them healthy in the process. 

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Playing sports has long been considered an important part of growing up, but participation in sports among low and middle income American families has been on the decline in recent years, according to multiple studies

About seven in 10 children from families that earn more than $100,000 play sports. In contrast, just three in 10 children from families earning less than $25,000 participate, according to The Aspen Institute’s Project Play.

This gap has widened as “pay-to-play” costs have risen — putting a paywall behind organized sports at schools or in the community. Budgeting shortfalls in the public school system mean that these costs will continue to rise and become more common. Tom Farrey, the executive director of Aspen’s Sports & Society program, discussed the issue with The Atlantic and said that expensive private travel sports leagues could have an indirect effect on the quality and accessibility of local sports leagues by leaving fewer involved parents, players, and resources. 

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“Kids’ sports has seen an explosion of travel-team culture, where rich parents are writing a $3,000 check to get their kids on super teams from two counties, or two states, away,” Farrey said in an interview with The Atlantic. “When these kids move to the travel team, you pull bodies out of the local town’s recreation league, and it sends a message [to those] who didn’t get onto that track that they don’t really have a future in the sport.”

Project Play reports that the average American family spends around $700 annually on their children’s sports-related costs. A 2019 RAND Corporation study revealed that cost was the top reason families pointed to for not signing their kids up for sports. This is certainly not aided by the fact that economic inequality in the U.S. is at an all-time high, and set to worsen because of the global pandemic. 

That study also revealed some steps that communities can take to boost athletic participation. For starters, reducing or eliminating pay-to-play costs in public schools could greatly boost turnout in school sports. Allocating more money to the public school system in general could help solve this problem, as pay-to-play fees were introduced to counter school budgeting shortfalls.

Additionally, many community-based organizations help reduce out-of-pocket costs for lower income families. Many even provide stipends for sports equipment to nearby schools and organizations that parents would have had to pay for otherwise. Investing more heavily in these groups would increase the number of kids that can participate in sports in their community.

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