But dig into the numbers, and a more complex, two-track story emerges. Among richer families, youth sports participation is actually rising. Among the poorest households, it’s trending down. Just 34 percent of children from families earning less than $25,000 played a team sport at least one day in 2017, versus 69 percent from homes earning more than $100,000. In 2011, those numbers were roughly 42 percent and 66 percent, respectively.
This isn’t a story about American childhood; it’s about American inequality.
Read: What’s lost when only rich kids play sports
“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,” said Tom Farrey, the executive director of Aspen’s Sports & Society program. Expensive travel leagues siphon off talented young athletes from well-off families, leaving behind desiccated local leagues with fewer players, fewer involved parents, and fewer resources. “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.” The result is a classist system: the travel-team talents and the local leftovers.
Unsurprisingly, the leftovers often lose interest. As Chris Moore, the executive officer of the U.S. Youth Soccer Association, told The New York Times, “If you can’t make a travel team, some kids may say, ‘What’s the point?’ and quit playing altogether.”
In short, the American system of youth sports—serving the talented, and often rich, individual at the expense of the collective—has taken a metal bat to the values of participation and universal development. Youth sports has become a pay-to-play machine.
Declining athletic participation is a prime example of how the choices even benevolent rich households make can hurt poorer families—especially their children.
As a general rule, rich parents in the United States don’t just spend more money on their kids; they spend a larger share of their income on their kids. (One could say that enrichment spending on children is a luxury good.) If you divide American households into five quintiles by income, the richest group earns about five times as much as the poorest, but spends about seven times as much on kids—about $9,300 to $1,300 per child. Income inequality, vast at the household level, is even vaster at the child-investment level.
It’s commendable for all parents—rich or poor—to love, and desperately want to help, their children. But not all expressions of love are harmless. In his 2017 book, Dream Hoarders, the economist Richard Reeves wrote that economic mobility in the U.S. has been declining in the past few decades in part because of “opportunity hoarding.” For example, rich parents may pull special levers to get their kids into hyper-select schools, or elite internships, or exclusive entry-level jobs. In so doing, they—in effect— snatch precious opportunities away from the less fortunate.