Simple solution to include more children in youth sports regardless of parents’ wealth

Playing sports as a kid can bring a lifetime of benefits, physically, mentally, and socially. Not only is it good exercise, it gives children direct experience in teamwork, self-discipline, and the value of persistence through the ups and downs of competition. Team sports is also a great way for young people to meet new friends and have fun. Parents would be glad to know as well that athletes tend to stay out of trouble and be more successful in the classroom, with better grades and higher likelihood of going to college.

Unfortunately, playing sports can also be quite expensive. Over time, uniforms, equipment, youth league fees, facility fees, and coaching lessons all add up — excluding kids whose parents aren’t rich. Even the perception of insurmountable cost, along with the humiliation of being required to explain one’s poverty, can be a major barrier. In the end, the effects of that early exclusion on the children unavoidably ripple out into the rest of the community as they grow up.

In the city of Gaithersburg, Maryland, one advocate noticed one particular dimension of the problem that might be easily fixed. He reasoned that while the city does waive its youth league fees for low-income families, requiring them to prove they’re poor through additional forms was likely turning many away. So he convinced the city to test out a simple solution: turn that elaborate, demoralizing process into a simple checkbox. It worked, as the Washington Post explains:

Marc Berk, a health policy researcher, got the checkbox idea on vacation in New York. He noticed that museum-goers who couldn’t pay the requested donation fee had to explain why — a demeaning procedure. He wondered whether something similar kept lower-income families away from youth sports.

Berk persuaded officials in Gaithersburg to amend their fee-waiver process. Instead of requiring families to fill out forms proving their need, administrators added a checkbox to the sign-up form. It says, “I am a resident of the City, and I am requesting a waiver of all fees.”

Waiver requests soared by 1,200 percent. Participation jumped 31 percent; for children who attend high-poverty schools, it shot up almost 80 percent.

It’s not a comprehensive solution to ensuring that all young people can play to their potential regardless of their parents’ wealth, but it’s a positive step in the right direction that more local governments and nonprofits should follow. For more information, see “‘An incredible impact’: Poor kids are being priced out of youth sports. Here’s one solution.” The Washington Post (2016).