It’s even more revealing to think about this in the context of the general affordability crisis. LISEP has shown that most Americans have been struggling to pay for necessities. We did this by tracking the cost of basic necessities, such as housing, food, transportation and medical care in an index we called the True Living Cost (TLC). We found that the TLC inflated 45% faster than the CPI would indicate over the last 20-plus years. The implication is clear: recreational activities that are fundamental to physical and mental health as well as community building have been pushed down the priority list as families tighten their belts to put food on the table.
One reaction to LISEP’s findings may be that missing out on some fun and play is unfortunate, but American families have more important things to worry about. Not having shelter implies homelessness; not having food can lead to starvation. But what are the material consequences of depriving a child of participating on the school’s football team or not eating out at the local diner with friends and family?
It turns out, the consequences are significant. One study shows that consistent involvement in extracurricular activities increased a child’s likelihood of attending college by a whopping 400% compared to not being involved at all. Renowned political scientist Robert Putnam puts this in simple terms: “extracurricular participation matters for upward mobility.” The proliferation of the pay-to-play model that forces families to pay for extracurricular activities is alarming. With annual fees amounting to almost $400 per activity per year, it’s no surprise that one in three sports-playing children from households earning below the national median income dropped out after this model was established.
Take another activity in our basket: eating out with friends and family. Social eating is known to facilitate social bonding, which is key to combating mental and physical illness. TV is another case in point. Studies around the world have documented gains in cognitive performance among children who viewed Sesame Street more frequently. Further, watching TV in moderation can provide a channel for adults to de-stress and disconnect from their everyday lives, promoting mental recovery.
So, leisure-time activities matter — a lot. They help enlighten the mind, reinvigorate the body, and uplift the spirit. And the disconcerting fact that fewer and fewer American families can afford them is already bringing about serious problems for many Americans. One such damaging effect is that only 38% of children aged 6-12 years played team or individual sports on a regular basis in 2018 compared to 45% in 2008, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Predictably, this is taking a toll on children’s health: 16.2% of children aged 10-17 years were considered obese in 2019-20 compared to 14.8% in 2003, according to National Survey of Children's Health.
Holiday spending on family gifts is another example. Surveys from financial services firms highlighted Americans’ significant distress over the costliness of gifts and other festive items. One such survey reported that one third of parents with children below 18 years of age would be willing to re-gift to save money. Another survey showed that 48% are dreading the holiday season’s expenses and that 36% of parents with children under 18 lose sleep over this. This is particularly striking when compared to the 27% of Americans that reported worrying about the cost of winter holidays in 2006.
Steep costs are also squeezing out social time. The percent of households reporting spending on food away from home declined across meal types between 1997 and 2018, according to the Consumer Expenditure Survey. At least some of this decline has to do with cost. Indeed, a third of Americans reported skipping a meal out with friends and family due to cost in 2018.
Vacation days have taken a hit too. In 2018, American workers took an average of 17.4 vacation days compared to 21.2 days in 1981. This is not because fewer vacation days were available. In fact, the National Compensation Survey (NCS) confirms the contrary; the average American worker had more vacation days on average in 2018 than in 1996-1997 after one, 10, and 20 years of service, respectively. The top barrier to taking vacation days cited was cost.
The list goes on. The appalling finding of our research is that 39% of American households in 2021 weren’t able to afford paying for necessities and some minimal recreational activities (including extracurricular activities for children and a pair of shoes for the adults to jog). If the typical American family with two parents and two children earning median household income at $70,784 attempted to cover all these costs, they would have been almost $8,600 in debt in 2021. If there’s one thing these statistics tell us, it’s that the American Dream is further and further out of reach.