Newspaper article Charleston Gazette Mail

Poor Kids Being Priced out of Sports; Waivers Can Help

Newspaper article Charleston Gazette Mail

Poor Kids Being Priced out of Sports; Waivers Can Help

Article excerpt

As poor children around the country get priced out of expensive youth sports leagues, a volunteer baseball coach in suburban Maryland has devised a novel solution to one of many financial barriers. It's a small square check box.

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 if something similar kept lower income families away from youth sports.

Berk persuaded officials in Gaithersburg, Maryland, to amend their fee waiver process. Instead of making families fill out forms proving they are poor, a check box was added to the sign-up form. It said: "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, and, for children who attend high-poverty schools, it shot up almost 80 percent.

"Just doing this one small thing had an incredible impact for a lot of families, said Berk, who published his findings this summer in the Journal of Park and Recreation Administration.

The fee - $50 today, but $40 during the study period in 2009 - was covered by a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant, so the effort cost the city nothing. Now, having read the results of the study, Gaithersburg officials are considering making the waiver process permanent, which could increase costs for youth sports by at least several thousand dollars. There is also a risk of waiver fraud.

But city officials say they are weighing those downsides against a growing body of research showing that participation in youth sports improves physical and mental health, lowers crime and teen pregnancy rates, and increases college enrollment.

"Is this a service that you now provide like police or other nonrevenue generating departments? asked city manager Tony Tomasello. "They don't make any money, but they benefit the public. Are we trying to fund a public benefit or are we trying to fund health and fitness? Obviously it's both, but I think it's really gravitating toward more of a social benefit.

Tomasello, Berk and youth sports experts also acknowledge that waiving fees at the city level only addresses one barrier to poor children signing up to play soccer or baseball.

Transportation is a critical issue, with many single parents juggling multiple jobs and multiple children who need to be in multiple places. Also, Gaithersburg is somewhat unique in organizing leagues. Many cities and counties have exited youth sports, which is now largely controlled by independent leagues that charge hundreds of dollars in fees, either for recreational programs or more expensive travel teams.

How does that look on the field?

Last year, nearly 70 percent of children from families making more than $100,000 played team sports, according to Project Play, an Aspen Institute initiative on youth sports. …

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