Everyday Sociology Blog: Pools and Privileges

Everyday Sociology Blog: Pools and Privileges
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Karen Sternheimer

I may have learned to swim before I could walk. As a child, 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 skills like floating, blowing bubbles, and kicking. I also felt comfortable in the water, which I have been around all my life thanks to swimming lessons as a child.

I am now a full-time lap swimmer, which has many benefits for my physical and mental health. And while people at my community pool sometimes praise my consistency and endurance in the water, most of it is due to the hidden privileges of having access to pools for most of my life. Of course, many people do not swim regularly could– so I’ll take credit for a regular suit (especially on cold days!), but many of the factors that motivate me to swim are class privileges that often go unrecognized.

Let’s go back to my mom and I’s swimming days. When I was a baby, mothers with small children were more likely to stay at home and not work. Based on 2014 Pew Research Center Analysis, Mothers with Working Husbands, 1970 did not work twice as often as in 2012. (40 percent compared to 20 percent). This decision was due to economic reasons. Not only because the lower cost of living allowed more families to live on one income, but in the early 1970s women only earned about 60 cents for every dollar men earned. (The latest 2020 Census data shows the gap is now 83 cents on the dollar.)

So my mother could afford to leave the workforce 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. I guess the pool visits helped her feel less isolated and gave her a chance to socialize with other young moms and exercise herself. I’m not sure how much the membership fee was for the pool, but it was probably within our family’s budget.

As I got older, I continued to take swimming lessons at our local municipal pool and summer camps. Neither was optional for me; my parents saw swimming as a life-saving skill, so being able to swim was expected. (And getting the kids out of the house in the summer was probably a lifesaver for my parents, so camp wasn’t necessary either.)

A season pass to our local city pool requires additional fees ($240 in summer for a family of five in 2022 as then), and swimming lessons would cost more on top of the basic entry fee. We attended local summer day camps that included swimming, so there were other expenses.

One summer when I was 7 years old, I took a swimming lesson and was afraid to dive out of the pool as our instructor insisted. A metal chute ran around the perimeter of the pool, where I had bumped my shin while trying to dive earlier. Hanging in the diving position, but afraid to submerge, the instructor pushed me into the pool. My father had just come to pick me up from class and saw what had happened. He was furious that the instructor had pushed me, and I wasn’t too happy about it either.

This 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, obviously at a much higher price than a group lesson. . What could have been a traumatic pool experience turned into personal lessons that kept me interested in swimming. It was always nice to go to the pool with the whole family in the summer or with friends as we got older. The lifeguards kept a close eye on the kids there, and my parents knew I was a well-trained swimmer and knew the basics of pool safety, so they were comfortable letting me go. There was also a full snack bar to keep you going throughout the day; some nights they showed old movies by the pool (e.g Creature from the Black Lagoon). The municipal pool was the center of the children’s social life if you paid the price of admission.

The day camps I attended included structured swimming lessons that helped us get our American Red Cross certifications; swimming was later incorporated into my middle school and high school gym curriculum. To fulfill the high school gym requirement, each student had to pass water rescue tests, which included swimming laps with clothes on, making flotation devices out of clothes and other lifesaving skills. This was made possible by attending a well-funded public school with an on-site swimming pool.

And now, decades later, I live in a community with a heated outdoor pool that all residents of the 276 privately built homes mandated in our home title deeds must pay for. Our monthly fees, now $129 per month per household, are exclusive of mortgage, property taxes and other monthly property maintenance fees. Needless to say, living here is also a result of and contributes to the transmission of privilege. A swimming pool clearly contributes to the increased value of community assets.

In the early months of the pandemic, the pool was one of the only activities initially accessible through the online reservation system. Having access to a pool meant there was somewhere to get out of the house and exercise and socialize with others from afar.

Pool access is especially important when the weather warms up. According to the American Housing Survey, about 22 percent of homes in Los Angeles, where I live, do not have air conditioning. The number of lower- and middle-income households is closer to 30 percent. For the lowest earners, making less than $20,000 a year, one in three lack AC.

And when you consider that those who earn more often live by the sea, where the temperature is cooler, the shortage is even more acute. Only about 13 percent of top earners do not have air conditioning, and they are less likely to need it. Temperatures near the coast can be 10-20 degrees cooler than on land. During the pandemic, air conditioning and a pool to reserve the swimming lane meant staying cool and reducing the risk of the virus in the cooling center.

Despite the pandemic, swimming is a sport that contributes to overall health and well-being. Humans can swim all their lives; even minimally mobile individuals can perform water-based exercise. We have weekly aqua aerobics classes in our pool which attracts a lot of older residents, although some of our pool regulars are over 80 and swim as fast as I do.

The transfer of these privileges is repeated. At the pool, we hear neighbors talking about buying a home for their grown children, using their home equity or building up big savings. The median home price in Los Angeles (the point where half the homes cost more and half cost less) is now an astronomical $998,000. This means that their children can have homes that they could not otherwise afford; even if they later take out a mortgage to pay their parents back, they have an advantage in the market by making a cash offer.

Swimming is a relatively inexpensive 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 there are a few hidden perks beneath the surface. What other perks can you think of?

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