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  • Shyam K. Sriram and Maura Jordan

Why Do Youth Sports Often Worsen Inequality?

Maura Jordan is a senior majoring in finance and economics.

Shyam K. Sriram is an assistant professor of political science.


Growing levels of inequality in the United States are causing the wealth disparity gap to widen. Rising economic inequality is not only bad for the economy, but it is harmful to the mental and physical health of the people who experience it. It also creates negative societal patterns and hinders social mobility. We see this at Canisius as well among our student body: everyone comes to campus with different experiences and expectations and it might be the first time many are meeting folks from different social classes.


One arena that is starting to realize these negative effects is the youth sports industry. In recent years, there has been increased popularity in “pay-to-play” sports. The large costs associated with these teams have precluded lower income individuals from participating, which challenges the narrative that sports are a great equalizer. This issue combined with the underfunding of public-school sports in lower income areas, the lack of low-cost or free options, and early sport specialization have created unequal opportunities for children from low income families. This is why sports participation increases when family income increases.


According to research by Lindsey Black and coauthors, the percentage of children ages 6 to 17 that participated in a sport in the last twelve months was 31.2% among children with a family income of less than 100% of the federal poverty level. It was 70.2% for children with a family income that is greater than 400% of the federal poverty level (Black et al.). Wealthy parents are also more likely to spend more money on their child’s sport. According to the Aspen Institute’s 2022 “State of Play” report, parents in the wealthiest households spent about four times more on their child’s sport than the lowest earning households. This causes children from these low earning households to miss out on the numerous benefits that participation in youth sports provide. 


The factors of gender and race have additional effects on participation in youth sports. Eric Hyde and his team have documented how girls are also less likely to participate in youth sports than boys. Boys participated at a rate of 51.3% in 2017 to 2018 and girls participated at a rate of 48.7%. Boys also had higher levels of participation at every age group from age six to seventeen. There are many factors that have led to this decline in participation including the lack of opportunities and adequate facilities combined with social stigma and sexism. This is unfortunate due to all the benefits that youth sports provide to young girls. There is a significant difference in participation rates in youth sports that correlates with race. Participation rates in sports were the highest at high schools with the fewest minority students, according to Lamar Alexander and his coauthors. 


If these patterns continue at the youth sport level, we could see them manifest at the professional level. Children need to be given opportunities in sports while they are young in order for them to participate later in life. If decreased participation among children who come from low income families continues, then these children might never get the opportunity to be professionals in their sport. This is also true with decreased participation rates among the different races and among girls. These patterns will lead to overall decreased social mobility and further contribute to the growing wealth disparity gap.


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