July 04, 2022

Pools and Privilege

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

It’s possible that I learned to swim before I could walk. As an infant, my mother took me to a group swimming lesson at the local YWCA, where mothers introduced their babies to the water. While she held me, I learned such skills as floating, blowing bubbles, and kicking. I also became comfortable in the water, which I have been throughout my life thanks to years of swimming lessons as a child.

I’m a regular lap swimmer now, which provides numerous physical and mental health benefits. And while people at my community pool sometimes compliment my consistency and endurance in the water, I owe most of this to the hidden privileges of having access to pools most of my life. Sure, lots of people don’t swim regularly who could—so I’ll take some credit for suiting up on a regular basis (especially on cold days!)—but many of the factors that lead me to swim are class-based privileges that often go unrecognized.

Let’s go back to the mommy and me swim days. When I was an infant, mothers with young children were more likely to stay home and be out of the work force. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center analysis, mothers with working husbands were twice as likely to be out of the workforce in 1970 as they were in 2012 (40 percent vs. 20 percent). Economic reasons drove this decision. Not only because the lower cost of living meant more families could live on a single income, but in the early 1970s, women only earned about 60 cents for every dollar earned by men. (Most recent census data in 2020 indicate the disparity is now 83 cents on the dollar.)

So my mother could afford to be out of the labor force in the early 1970s when I was young, even though she had a college degree and previously had a career that she enjoyed and would later return to. My guess is the visits to the pool helped her to feel less isolated and gave her the chance to interact with other new young mothers and get some exercise herself. I’m not sure how much the membership fee for the pool was, but it was likely affordable on our family’s budget.

As I got a little older, I continued to take swimming lessons at our local municipal pool and at summer camps. Neither were optional for me; my parents regarded swimming as a lifesaving skill, so knowing how to swim was expected. (And getting the kids out of the house during the summer was probably lifesaving for my parents, so going to camp wasn’t optional either.)

Having a seasonal admission pass to our local city pool involved additional fees (In 2022 it costs $240 for a family of five, as we were then, for the summer), and swimming lessons would cost more on top of the basic admission fee. We attended local summer day camps which included swimming, so there were other expenses involved too.

One summer, when I was about 7, I was at my swimming lesson and was afraid to dive off the side of the pool, as our instructor required. A metal gutter ran around the perimeter of the pool, and I had banged my shin on it before while trying to dive. Hovering in dive position but afraid to dive in, the instructor pushed me in the pool. My father was just coming to pick me up from the lesson and saw what happened. He was furious that the instructor pushed me in, and I wasn’t too happy about it either.

That was my last group swimming lesson at the pool—within a week, my parents had arranged for me to take one-on-one private swimming lessons with a kind and patient college student, no doubt at a much higher price than the group lesson. What could have been a traumatizing pool experience morphed into personalized lessons that maintained my interest in swimming. It was always a treat to go to the pool as a family in the summer, or as I got older, with friends. Lifeguards carefully monitored the kids there, and my parents knew I was well-trained as a swimmer and knew the basics of pool safety, so they were comfortable letting me go. There was also a full snack bar so you could spend a whole day there; some nights they showed old movies poolside (like The Creature from the Black Lagoon). The municipal pool was a center for social life for kids, if you paid the price of admission.

The day camps I attended included structured swimming lessons that guided us towards earning American Red Cross certifications; later swimming was built into the curriculum in my middle school and high school gym classes. To complete the high school gym requirement, every student had to pass a series of water-based lifesaving tests, including swimming laps with clothes on, making floatation devices from clothing, and other rescue skills. Attending a well-funded public school with a pool on-site made this possible.

And now, decades later, I live in a community with a heated outdoor pool that all residents in the private development of 276 homes are required to pay for, mandated in the title deeds to our homes. Our monthly dues, now $129 per month per household, are in addition to paying mortgages, property taxes, and other monthly fees for property maintenance. Needless to say, living here is also the result of, and contributes to, the conveyance of privilege. The pool clearly contributes to the community’s higher property values.

During the early months of the pandemic, the pool was one of the only activities that was available, initially by an online reservation system. Having access to a pool meant having a place to get out of the house and to exercise, and chat with others outside from a distance.

Access to a pool is especially important when the weather heats up. According to the American Housing Survey, about 22 percent of homes in Los Angeles, where I live, have no air conditioning. For lower-income and middle-income households, the number is closer to 30 percent. For the lowest earners, earning under $20,000 per year, one in three lack AC.

And when you consider that higher earners are more likely to live by the coast, where the temperatures are cooler, the disadvantage intensifies. Only about 13 percent of the highest earners are without air conditioning and are less likely to need it. The temperature by the coast can be 10-20 degrees cooler than it is inland. During the pandemic, having AC and a pool to reserve a swimming lane meant staying cool while minimizing the virus risk of a cooling center.

Beyond the pandemic, swimming is a sport that contributes to overall health and well-being. People can swim throughout the life course; even those with minimal mobility can do water-based exercise. Our pool has a weekly water aerobics class that draws many older residents, although some of the regulars at our pool are in their 80s and swim laps as fast as I do.

The transmission of these privileges is generational. We hear our neighbors’ conversations at the pool about buying homes for their adult children using their home equity or substantial savings. The median home price in Los Angeles (the point at which half of homes cost more, half cost less) is now an astronomical $998,000. This means that their children can own homes they otherwise can’t afford; even if they later take out a mortgage to pay their parents back, they have an advantage in the marketplace by making an all-cash offer.

Swimming is a relatively low-cost hobby, at least on the surface. A bathing suit is really all you need; a swim cap and goggles help, and some invest in a snorkel and fins. But beneath the surface lies several hidden privileges. What other privileges can you think of?


The article is very interesting!

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