The Income Gap Is Becoming a Physical-Activity Divide

Over the last two decades, technology companies and policymakers warned of a “digital divide” in which poor children could fall behind their more affluent peers without equal access to technology. Today, with widespread internet access and smartphone ownership, the gap has narrowed sharply.

But with less fanfare a different division has appeared: Across the country, poor children and adolescents are participating far less in sports and fitness activities than more affluent youngsters are. Call it the physical divide.

Data from multiple sources reveal a significant gap in sports participation by income level. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that 70 percent of children from families with incomes above about $105,000 — four times the poverty line — participated in sports in 2020. But participation was around 51 percent for families in a middle-income range, and just 31 percent for families at or below the poverty line.

A 2021 study of Seattle-area students from fifth grade through high school found that less affluent youth were less likely to participate in sports than their more affluent peers. The study also found that middle schoolers from more affluent families were three times as likely to meet physical exercise guidelines as less affluent students.

A combination of factors is responsible. Spending cuts and changing priorities at some public schools have curtailed physical education classes and organized sports. At the same time, privatized youth sports have become a multibillion-dollar enterprise offering new opportunities — at least for families that can afford hundreds to thousands of dollars each season for club-team fees, uniforms, equipment, travel to tournaments and private coaching.

“What’s happened as sports has become privatized is that it has become the haves and have-nots,” said Jon Solomon, editorial director for the Aspen Institute Sports and Society Program.

Recent Aspen Institute research found that among children from families making less than $25,000 a year, participation in a healthy level of activity fell to 26.6 percent in 2021 from 34.1 percent in 2013. For children from families with $25,000 to $50,000 in income, participation fell during that time to 35.7 percent from 38.1 percent.

But among families with incomes above $100,000, participation rose in that period, to 46 percent from 43.9 percent, the Aspen Institute found.

“Particularly for low-income kids, if they don’t have access to sports within the school setting, where are they going to get their physical activity?” Mr. Solomon said. “The answer is nowhere.”

Schools are not always filling the gap. A recent report from the Physical Activity Alliance, a nonprofit organization, gave schools nationwide a grade of D– for physical fitness. That is a downgrade from a C– in 2014, with the new grade reflecting even less access to regular physical education classes, gym time and equipment in schools.

Ann Paulls-Neal, varsity track coach at Highland High, has noticed that more affluent students, with access to club sports, “are more comfortable moving, where the students in low-income areas are not.” Credit…Adria Malcolm for The New York Times

Ann Paulls-Neal, a longtime physical education teacher and track coach in Albuquerque, has watched the trend play out. For nearly 20 years, until 2017, she taught at John Baker Elementary, which drew students largely from middle- and higher-income families (less than one-third qualified for free or reduced-price lunch). There, “all of my students did at least one sport after school,” she said. “Club soccer or pretty much club anything.”

Then she moved to a school, Wherry Elementary, where 100 percent of the students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. Students played on the playground, she said, “but we had just three kids that were playing any kind of sport outside of school.”

She speculated about the reasons. Families couldn’t afford private sports or didn’t have cars or time to ferry their children to practice, she proposed, and clubs were unthinkable “if these sites or clubs don’t hold practice on a bus line.”

In 2019, Ms. Paulls-Neal became the department chair of health and physical education at Highland High School, where 100 percent of students qualify for free lunch. Here, she said, she was seeing the impact of “this club and school divide.”

More affluent children are often highly trained in sports — “a little bit ahead,” said Ms. Paulls-Neal, who is also the executive director of the New Mexico chapter of the Society of Health and Physical Educators, or SHAPE America. “And they are more comfortable moving, where the students in low-income areas are not.”

A similar pattern is emerging in Unit District No. 5 in McLean County, Ill. Faced with budget shortfalls, the district’s board of education voted this year to make a series of cuts, including to sports. Next year all the junior high sports will be gone: boys’ and girls’ basketball, cross-country, track, boys’ wrestling and baseball, and girls’ softball and volleyball.

The cuts also include freshman sports at the district’s two high schools; proposed cuts for the 2024-25 school year include junior varsity high school sports. In November, district voters rejected a proposal to raise taxes to fund those programs.

Kristen Weikle, superintendent of Unit 5 District Schools in McLean County, Ill. Faced with budget shortfalls, the district’s board of education voted this year to eliminate numerous sports, including basketball, baseball and track.Credit…Mustafa Hussain for The New York Times

“It’s devastating for the kids,” said Kristen Weikle, the district’s superintendent. She said that school sports promote good grades and boost physical and emotional health among students who participate.

Private sports are accessible to some lower-income families, she added, but not to all. “It’s not just the cost to participate,” Ms. Weikle said. “It’s the cost to travel to competitions. It’s the time to take their child to club activities and then purchase the equipment.”

To improve equity, Valentine Walker, the coach of high school boys’ and girls’ soccer in the district, started a free soccer club in 2008. At the time, his 8-year-old son was participating in baseball and soccer clubs that cost hundreds of dollars a season. Mr. Walker noticed “an influx of Jamaicans and Africans and Hispanic kids whose families could not afford pay-to-play.”

Mr. Walker, who grew up in a poor family in Jamaica, saved money by borrowing school equipment and a 13-seat van from a friend for travel to tournaments and by having six or seven players share a hotel room. “I had to stick my nose under the door so I could get some fresh air,” Mr. Walker said with a laugh.

Mr. Walker is now fielding the second generation of that team, at a cost of around $400 per season; families that can’t afford it don’t pay, and more affluent families and sponsors subsidize the experience.

He conceded that his private team tended to take players who were more gifted or showed particular potential. But on his public high school teams he makes no cuts, because many less affluent students who lack club experience would not be able to play otherwise. In the summer, he holds open soccer workouts from 6:30 to 8:30 a.m., followed by strength training in the weight room.

“This is not a policy — it’s just me,” he said. “It’s because of my desire to reduce the inequities.”

Valentine Walker, coach of high school boys’ and girls’ soccer in Unit District No. 5. In 2008, he started a free soccer club for children who “could not afford pay-to-play.”Credit…Mustafa Hussain for The New York Times

As public schools grapple with the economics of physical activity, a private youth sports industry has blossomed. Annual market revenue from team registrations, travel, apparel, equipment and other expenses grew to $28 billion in 2021 from $3.5 billion in 2010, according to WinterGreen Research, a private data company.

“It started with software” that enabled teams to organize and collect money, said Susan Eustis, WinterGreen’s president. And then, she said, “schools started defunding their sports.”

At first, she added, “these two things didn’t have much to do with each other.” But increasingly, entrepreneurs and private coaches used technology to market, organize and create tournaments and to serve a growing population of parents who wanted deeper experiences for their children, and whose schools were divesting from sports and gym programs.

She cited cost as a barrier to lower-income children’s participation in private sports. The Aspen Institute found that families spend on average $1,188 per year per child for soccer, $1,002 for basketball, $714 for baseball and $581 for tackle football.

Ms. Eustis largely champions private youth sports, which she says provide “elite” training, reduce bullying with professional coaches and start at young ages, as early as 3. Then there is the chance to travel with family as a group activity — “dynamic new travel teams that consume nights and weekends for families,” she wrote in her 2022 report. “The best and the brightest want top-notch sports training for their children.”

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