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Where The Sidewalk Ends: The Socioeconomic Divide

Posted Nov 23 2011 10:30am


Sidewalks are disappearing in urban areas, where they're most necessary. Perhaps this is happening because people have stopped using them or perhaps people have stopped using them because they're disappearing. For years I have returned to my childhood home in New Jersey and when I am there I run. Here the traffic is thick and fast and dangerous. I literally take my life into my hands when I run there. Over the course of 20+ years of running the same routes year after year, I have witnessed the disintegration of sidewalks - they slowly break up, crumble away and disappear - never to be replaced and I am forced to battle it out with the ever increasing and aggressive traffic.

Recently Runner's World ran a piece about the "whiteness" of running - and it got me thinking about something I've thought about many, many times - and that is the "wealthiness" of running. Of course in this country 'whiteness' and 'wealthiness' go hand in hand as many statistics clearly show. It seems that running is most enjoyed by those in the upper income brackets. There are some obvious reasons for this, but it seems that having leisure time and a safe place to run are the main prerequisites for developing the running habit. Other reasons include: disposable income available for gear, and perhaps most importantly, cultural/social support of and encouragement for such pastimes.

There is an amusing blog and book, published several years ago, called " Stuff White People Like " - and I'm sure somewhere on the list must be: Running. If there's also a book out there called "Stuff Fairly Well-Off People Like" running will also be on the list. When I posed this question to many, many runners both in person and online, collecting responses from those in the U.S. and internationally, the response was predictable, but disheartening nonetheless: The almost universal response was: that's the way it is with everything - The Socioeconomic divide is just the way things are, and at least running isn't as bad as golf or skiing or triathlon... 

Well, I teach ethics for a living, and so I spend my life's energy thinking about how things OUGHT to be, not how they ARE. Call me idealistic or unrealistic if you wish, but much positive change has begun with such ridiculous speculations: Think about slavery, women's rights, segregation laws, child labor laws... 

So, I think that this socioeconomic divide must be addresses, discussed, debated, and ultimately resolved. Saying that this is how life is, that no one ever said life would be/is fair, or some other such blather, does nothing for the world. To say that what is, is what is, and that is how it's always going to be is maintaining something that is logically fallacious, historically incorrect, and (possibly) morally corrupt. As I've written in previous posts, I believe that running makes for a better world, so I'm always interested in getting more people out running because I want to live in a better world and I want to leave a better world to my daughter.

Besides the folks who claim that that's just life, there are those who maintain that: "If you really love something enough you will make the sacrifices to keep doing it." Now I see at least two problems with this position: a) We have a chicken-and-egg problem. You have to be a runner first before you understand that it's something you want to do - something to make time for, something to make sacrifices for, something to strive for; and, b) For many people survival is the issue, not running, and there is nothing to 'sacrifice' besides necessities that can't be sacrificed. How presumptuous is it to say to someone living in poverty or living in a dangerous neighborhood, that if they really want it they can have it. This attitude seems to be reflect a very American upper/middle-class unwillingness to see that sometimes people can be in extremely dire situations - Sometimes it due to their own choices, and sometimes it the result of circumstances entirely out of their control. This latter possibility makes people very nervous and so we pretend it doesn't exist.

Add to that the fact that we, as a culture, do nothing to encourage that segment (poor or minority) of the society to join us, and the claims discussed above seem just plain ignorant and out of touch. If you live in a place where traffic makes all the streets unsafe to run on and sidewalks are few and far between (and yes, there are places like that - but "fairly well-off people" don't go to those places) then you probably won't run. It's difficult enough to keep up the running habit in the best of circumstances - but when everything is working against you - No time, no money, unsafe environment (in every way), no support - you probably won't do it.

Returning to New Jersey...I run when I'm there. I do it because I must. I do it because I am already a runner. But would I become a runner today had it been like that when I was younger? Would I take up running now if I lived there now? I don't know. But we certainly aren't doing much to spread the good word. We smugly sit back and pat ourselves on the back for making the necessary sacrifices. The fact that this problem exists in everywhere should provide little comfort. Running doesn't require a lot to do. But support and encouragement and inclusion goes a long way.

*********************************************** Some organizations that work with underrepresented groups: Girls on the Run 
While Girls on the Run focuses on getting girls running, many of the programs can be found in the inner-city, urban areas. If there isn't one near you, they are always looking for new people to start programs.
Back On My Feet
"Back on My Feet is a nonprofit organization that promotes the self-sufficiency of those experiencing homelessness by engaging them in running as a means to build confidence, strength and self-esteem. Back on My Feet (BoMF) does not provide food nor does it provide shelter, but instead provides a community that embraces equality, respect, discipline, teamwork and leadership. All members - regardless of race, education or socioeconomic status - join together to move their own lives forward as well as the lives of their teammates."


****************************************************
Here's some demographic data for readers of Runner's World: This is not necessarily completely representative of the running community, but it is still telling:






$60,000+ $75,000+ $100,000+
any college 87%
grad college+ 60%

employed 75.0%
prof/mgr 42%

median hhi $111,929
average hhi $120,877

household income

81%
74%
57%
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