When Did Swimming Become a Privilege in the United States?

In this summer of sweltering heat, with oil companies reaping windfall profits and Republican politicians fighting to protect the riches of billionaires, we cannot seem to find enough resources to keep the pools open for our kids.
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This piece was previously published at PunditWire.

Amid all the debt ceiling and default stories and all the gamesmanship between President Obama and the Republican leadership, one little news item may say a lot more about our country than how much we lower the deficit.

In May the Associated Press reported that cities and counties all over the country are closing their public swimming pools. In this summer of sweltering heat, with our nation in three overseas conflicts and oil companies reaping windfall profits from high gas prices and Republican politicians fighting to protect the riches of millionaires and billionaires, we cannot seem to find enough resources to keep the pools open for our kids.

"From New York City to Sacramento, Calif.," the Associated Press writes, "pools now considered costly extravagances are being shuttered."

Sacramento, according to the story, had 13 pools a decade ago for its nearly half-million residents but will have only three by next summer. Search Google and you'll find report after report of communities padlocking their pools. Pasco County, Florida, one of the fastest growing counties in the United States with 471,000 residents, is debating whether to close its last two county-run pools. Johnston County, North Carolina... Goodlettsville, Tennessee... Beverly, West Virginia... Utica, New York... Austin, Texas... cities and towns around the country are closing their pools or proposing to do so.

Ours is the wealthiest nation in human history. But we are obviously not all sharing in the wealth.

The top 150,000 families in the United States -- meaning the top 0.1 percent of all earners -- earn over 10 percent of our nation's income. From the World War II years through 1980, the top 0.01 percent of all American families earned about 180 times more income than what the bottom 90 percent averaged; today it's close to 1,000 times more. While income for America's high earners has soared, it has flatlined for almost everyone else.

In terms of wealth, the top 10 percent of Americans control over 70 percent of our wealth, while the bottom 50 percent holds just 2.5 percent, and in fact the richest 1 percent possess more wealth than the bottom 90 percent of Americans.

Yes, the wealthiest Americans may have their own pools, and pricey swim clubs dot affluent suburban communities whose well-heeled residents can afford a membership and annual dues.

And in those grand backyards of Greenwich, Connecticut or McLean, Virginia -- as well as those well-maintained suburban pool clubs -- you will hear the squeals of children splashing in water and letting their summer imaginations flow and playing impromptu pool games with foam footballs and noodles. Teenagers will preen themselves for one another or lie in the sun procrastinating about their summer reading. Kids having summer fun, making friends, creating lifelong memories -- good for them.

But in the rest of the country, where families have fewer and fewer summer options, childhood will lose yet another of its vivid narratives. There will be no poolside memories for those unlucky kids. Public pools used to be magnets for people of all backgrounds to mingle and splash, but that too will be lost as poolside hobnobbing will be reserved only for those able to afford the privilege.

When our country looks at public spaces simply as expenditures to be cut, we lose a lot more than just a line in the budget.

To think that in a country of such affluence we must padlock the public pools is to wonder where the soul of our nation has gone. There are real consequences from budget cuts and from refusing to ask those who benefit the most from America to pay for it.

If the politicians make a deal to avoid our debt default, I'm sure the rhetoric will be triumphal and self-congratulatory. But if it means slicing more and more out of our lives, we may still have a great nation, but not necessarily a good one.

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