‘The next entitlement program’? Public pools are disappearing, actually

Some recent media coverage has drawn attention to the disappearance of public pools across the United States, and the deadly consequences of that disappearance. Right-wing media dude Erick Erickson sees an opening for outrage, because if you’re in the right-wing media, manufacturing outrage is your bread and butter.

“Starting to see more and more progressives demand public swimming pools,” Erickson tweeted. “Get ready for the next entitlement program.”

Erickson is clearly responding at least in part to a boomlet of media coverage of the decline of investment in public pools in the United States. CNN recently weighed in with some key facts: In 2015, there was one public pool per 34,000 people. That’s down to one per 38,000 people now. But that’s a very short time frame. Consider this: Around 20 years ago, Louisville, Kentucky, had 10 public pools for 550,000 people. Now it’s five for 640,000 people.

Much of the recent shift has been about disinvestment in public goods, things that benefit everyone, as Republicans push privatization of just about every possible government service. But if you go back a little further to the middle of the 20th century and desegregation, you get to some really ugly stuff. In some cities, there were full-on race riots as public pools were desegregated and Black people showed up to swim. In 1949 in St. Louis, for instance, a mob of thousands of white people showed up at the Fairground Park Pool as the first Black swimmers were allowed in. The pool was resegregated in response to the violence—Black people banned from swimming because of white people’s violence—and when it was integrated again the next year, white attendance plummeted. The pool closed six years later. Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., also had race riots over pool integration in the 1940s.

In some places, white people threw acid, bleach, or nails into pools to keep Black people out of them. Cities closed pools, filling them with concrete rather than countenancing integration. Swimming became a privatized activity, with the number of private swimming pools—at country clubs or at homes—soaring. Racism then fed into and combined with a pattern we see again and again: When rich people have access to something privately, public investment in it plummets.

When Erickson sneers about ”the next entitlement program,” he’s talking about something that has been in decline for decades as a direct result of two factors: racism and Republican economic policy.

The loss of public pools has deadly effects. In another of the pieces that likely spurred Erickson to try to manufacture outrage over the possibility of public pools, The New York Times’ Mara Gay recently wrote:

Drowning is the leading cause of death among 1- to 4-year-olds, the second-leading cause of accidental deaths by injury among children 5 to 14, and the third-leading cause of accidental death by injury for Americans 24 years and younger. Younger Black adolescents are more than three times as likely to drown as their white peers; Native American and Alaskan Native young adults are twice as likely to drown as white Americans. Eight in 10 drowning victims in the United States are male. Children with autism are 160 times as likely to drown or experience near-fatal drowning, a serious medical event that can cause severe and often permanent physical harm. The C.D.C. estimates that drowning costs the U.S. economy $53 billion each year.

That’s a lot of dead kids, and many of them are dead because there was nowhere safe for them to learn to swim. When it’s hot out—and thanks to climate change, it’s hotter and hotter—people tend to go in the water even if they don't know how to swim, and even if there are no safe options with qualified lifeguards. According to a 2017 study by the USA Swimming Foundation, 87% of people with no or low swimming ability nonetheless planned to go swimming that summer.

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The same study found that 40% of white kids had little or no swimming ability, but that was true of 64% of Black kids. Low-income kids were also dramatically more likely to have little or no swimming ability—something you can directly tie to the privatization of swimming. If it costs money to learn to swim, and requires traveling outside your neighborhood to get to the pool, swimming becomes a luxury and a class-based skill.

People calling out these ugly facts is what spurred Erickson to be all incensed about “progressives” agitating for “the next entitlement program.” According to him, something that the United States invested in during the 1930s, building hundreds of public pools during the New Deal, and which gave shape to a defining feature of life for decades is now some kind of loony new idea.

Do you live near a public pool? If you look at where the public pools in your area are located, do you see racial inequalities? In your experience, are public pools more or less available now or when you were a kid?