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How the Recession Left Low-Income Children Out of Shape and Out of Options

Blame school budget cuts and inadequate facilities for America’s childhood obesity epidemic.

By Sam Sutton


(Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

The Great Recession left obvious scars on the national psyche. Many communities haven’t recovered from the memories of shuttered homes, kneecapped work forces, and abandoned businesses. Yet for children of the recession, a growing body of research suggests those scars are physical.

In June, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found a startling connection between childhood obesity and the local economic health in California. As local unemployment rates rose in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, so did the likelihood of obesity. A 1 percentage point increase in county-level unemployment rates corresponded with a 1.4 percentage point increase in the likelihood local children would become obese.

The link between childhood obesity and unemployment was most pronounced among minority groups, a fact that’s perhaps unsurprising given how the recession disproportionately affected racial and ethnic wealth gaps and access to health care. American Indians and Pacific Islanders were 22 percent more likely to become obese as unemployment rose. Among black children, obesity risk ticked up 1.6 percentage point for each single digit increase in unemployment.

“We really often think about how recessions impact adults. They lose their jobs, 401ks are compromised, and that certainly has impact on their health,” says Vanessa Oddo, the primary author of the Johns Hopkins study. “There’s evidence that these downturns have trickle-down effects that impact children and their health.”

The Johns Hopkins study, published in the Journal of Epidemial Community Health, drew its findings from Department of Education data tracking the height and weight of more than 1.7 million California public school students from 2008 to 2012. The data pool allowed Oddo and her fellow researchers to track individual students’ physical development through the recession. That information was then cross-referenced against county-level unemployment estimates compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics over the same period.

Anecdotal evidence suggested declines in funding for after-school athletics and other public programs may have contributed to the spike in obesity risk, according to Oddo. That said, “one of the hard things about a lot of research questions is it’s hard to make causal arguments about these things,” she says. “We weren’t able to say anything about the mechanism because we didn’t have any data on physical activity.”

While Oddo lacked specific data detailing physical activity among the children tracked by her study, several other sources indicate declines in physical activity dovetailed with school budget cuts for physical education. Those declines likely played a role in increasing the risk of obesity.

In 2012, the United States Government Accountability Office found that dedicated instruction time for physical education had fallen, even as the number of schools requiring some form of physical activity increased.

“Most officials we spoke with cited budget cuts and inadequate facilities as major challenges for schools to provide physical education opportunities for students,” researchers from the GAO wrote in 2012. “Specifically, officials from several of the districts and schools we visited said budget cuts have affected their ability to hire P.E. teachers, maintain appropriate class sizes, and purchase sufficient equipment.”

California — the basis for the Johns Hopkins study — was among the states where that trend was most apparent. In the 2007–08 school year, which coincided with the start of the global recession, a California School Boards Association survey found that roughly one-quarter of school boards encountered problems meeting physical education demands. More than a quarter of those surveyed attributed higher class sizes to the struggling economy, and between 20 and 25 percent were forced to cut staffing and time allotted for physical education.

Strikingly, respondents from lower-income districts reported a greater negative impact on physical activity and P.E. opportunities than respondents from higher-income districts in each regard, the CSBA survey reported. In San Francisco’s public schools, where more than 60 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch programs, only 20 percent of elementary schools met the recommended standard 20 minutes of P.E. per day.

“We know that, as budgets get cut, access to P.E. frequently declines as well as what’s seen as in-school extra-curricular activities,” says Risa Isard, who co-authored a recent Aspen Institute report about the challenges for easing access to youth sports. “P.E. is typically cut in those constraints.”

Restoring funding for regularly scheduled physical education, as well as improving access to youth athletic leagues and recreational centers, will be critical to improving long-term health and academic outcomes within these communities. Allocating time and resources for mandatory physical education and recess, along with constructive support from policymakers and foundations, can help students in urban communities access opportunities to be active in a structured environment, wrote National Academy of Science researchers in a 2013 report.

Data published by the Aspen Institute suggests physical activity among children, particularly those from families living on limited incomes, slid steadily through the Great Recession and its aftermath, a period in which many schools scaled back resources for P.E.

Last year, more than 60 percent of U.S. adolescents failed to exercise “at a healthy level and beyond,” which the Aspen Institute defines as high-calorie burning activity occurring at least 151 times over the course of the year. The proportion of adolescents to hit healthy levels slipped by almost 8 percent between 2008 and 2015, according to the same report. The drop-off was even steeper for children between the ages of six and 12, falling by nearly 12 percent between 2008 and 2015.

Girls were less active than boys, according to the report, and disparities were even greater between children from different tax brackets. Slightly more than a quarter of adolescents with family incomes of $25,000 or less reached the threshold for healthy activity last year, compared to 45.7 percent of those from families making $100,000 or more.

Involvement in youth athletic leagues can cost thousands of dollars — ESPN pegged the cost of getting a young girl to a career in hockey at almost $50,000. It’s no surprise, then, that almost one-in-five parents reported declines in their child’s participation in youth sports due to cost, according to a 2014 study conducted by University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

Accordingly, youth participation in sports like basketball, track and field, soccer, and baseball have all fallen since 2008. Coupled with severe declines in softball and football (the latter of which may be due to injury concerns), only 40 percent of children participate in some form of youth league.

While money is the biggest driver in determining participation in team sports, race also plays a factor. Median weekly earnings for African Americans and Hispanics were between 20 and 28 percent less than that of whites in mid-2015, according to BLS data. Given the cost constraints, as well as the fact that black and Hispanic neighborhoods are less likely to have ready access to parks and playgrounds, the average age at which black and Hispanic children enters youth leagues is a year or more later than the average white child.

“On an individual level, sports is not a cheap endeavor in this day and age. There’s really no reason for it not to be. There’s all sorts of ways to field teams, or host leagues, in inexpensive ways,” Isard says. “But it’s expensive, and people lost access to it as family incomes decline.”

The Aspen Institute’s numbers correspond with those published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which tracks physical activity nationwide across age groups. The proportion of adolescents who were physically active on a daily basis fell by more than 1.6 percentage points in the years following the recession, according to CDC statistics. The problem was particularly acute in the southeastern states like Louisiana, Arkansas, and Georgia, all of which lacked state guidelines for activity or physical education as recently as the 2012–13 school year.

Schools provide important structures with which to reinforce healthy behaviors relating to activity and diet, and failures in leadership, guidance, or funding can cause serious long-term problems for students lacking other outlets. What’s damning for low-income families is that there’s little room to make up for what’s lost through school cutbacks. Ineffective or non-existent guidelines for physical education can limit the range of opportunities for populations that are already at-risk.

Academic research increasingly links physical health to academic performance, with Columbia University professor Charles Basch going so far as to link disparities in health to the educational achievement gap. “No matter how well teachers are prepared to teach, no matter what accountability measures are put in place, no matter what governing structures are established for schools, educational progress will be profoundly limited if students are not motivated and able to learn,” he wrote.

The challenges described by Basch became readily apparent in the years leading up to and following the recession, when many schools slashed physical education budgets to accommodate reforms instituted by 2002’s No Child Left Behind Act. Though designed to address the achievement gap, the landmark education reform bill prioritized testable curriculum over music, art, and P.E., forcing schools to divert resources away from non-core — but still vital — subjects.

In this context, the emergence of new data detailing the decline of physical activity and the rise of obesity rates among children and young adults reinforces what’s been apparent for some time: The economic and budgetary stress inflected by the Great Recession likely resulted in tangible, physical consequences on disadvantaged youth. And the knock-on effects for long-term health, education, and economic productivity continue to be stark.

Overweight children and adolescents are more likely to be obese as adults, which makes them more susceptible to costly, chronic ailments like diabetes and heart disease. The CDC pegs the annual costs of obesity-related medical care at around $147 billion, in 2008 dollars. That’s to say nothing of losses in economic productivity caused by obesity-related illnesses, estimated between $3.4 billion to $6.4 billion per year.

Given the findings from Johns Hopkins, the Aspen Institute, and others, those costs could climb quickly as children of the recession age into adulthood. Fortunately, policymakers are starting to meet those challenges.

In a recent interview, GOA officials said they plan to conduct additional research on youth athletics, specifically how public and private entities could address barriers posed by limited budgets. Recent CDC research into joint or shared-use agreements, which grant local and municipal recreational leagues access to public schoolyards and other facilities, could provide a blueprint for increasing opportunities for students in many more densely populated communities, according to Isard.

Last year, the Land & Water Conservation Fund State Assistance Program received $110 million in funding to develop new parks and recreation centers, which could further access. That’s on top of gains already reported by the CDC, which found that the percentage of neighborhoods with parks improved by nearly 10 percent between 2007 and 2012.

New funding was also unlocked through the Every Student Succeeds Act, which President Barack Obama signed late last year. The law updated No Child Left Behind legislation to account for deficiencies relating to physical education, updating curriculums and freeing up much-needed funding to make schools healthier.

Perhaps most importantly — given the close links between income, physical education, and access — U.S. Census Bureau data suggests real median household incomes finally started to crawl out of a post-recession trough in 2015, increasing by 5.2 percent between 2014 and 2015. Black and Hispanic-origin households saw increases of 4.1 percent and 6.1 percent, respectively, which also bodes well.

When those gains dovetail with policy, be it in the form of continued improvements in government funding or the proliferation of shared-use agreements, students will benefit.

While the effects of the Every Student Succeeds Act have yet to play out, research of shared-use agreements suggest they’ve been highly effective. Survey data collected after the Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation enter one such agreement with a local high school suggested a strong majority of students, teachers, and community members felt their access had improved.

Similar results were recorded in separate studies tracking other agreements in Boston, Cincinnati, and San Diego, according to a 2012 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation paper, which also referenced the Honolulu study. In New Orleans, the number of children who were physically active outdoors was 84 percent higher in neighborhoods where schools opened public play areas.

Significant challenges still remain. Improvements relating to income and policy could prove fleeting, particularly as the U.S. economy lurches into its eighth straight year of growth — one of the longest bull markets of the last century. Maintaining or expanding on physical education requirements must continue through the inevitable downturn. The health of the next generation depends on it.