How many Americans can't swim?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Aug. 4 2010 5:08 PM

How Many Americans Can't Swim?

The demographics of land-lubbing.

Swimmers. Click image to expand.
How many Americans can't swim?

Six teenagers drowned after slipping from a wading area into the deep water of a Louisiana river on Tuesday. None of the victims could swim, nor could the adult bystanders who watched helplessly as the children went under. What percentage of Americans can't swim?

Somewhere between one-third and around one-half. In a 1994 CDC study, 37 percent of American adults said they couldn't swim 24 yards, the length of a typical gymnasium lap pool. A 2008 study conducted by researchers at the University of Memphis found that almost 54 percent of children between 12 and 18 can do no more than splash around the shallow end of a pool. The difference between the two studies is somewhat surprising, as the CDC study suggested that children tend to be better swimmers than adults.

Advertisement

The Memphis study broke the data down demographically. White children were the most likely to self-report (or have their parents report) strong swimming skills, with 58 percent of those between the ages of 4 and 18 claiming the ability to traverse more than a pool length. Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders came in a close second at 55 percent. Forty-two percent of Hispanic and Latino children are strong swimmers. Asian-American and Native American children came in at 34 percent and 32 percent, respectively. African-Americans reported the fewest strong swimmers at 31 percent. Accident rates largely conform to these data. Black children between 5 and 14 years old are more than three times as likely to drown as their white peers. The six children who died in Louisiana were African-American.

A child's ability to swim is also strongly correlated with his parents' income. Sixty-seven percent of poor swimmers have a household income less than $49,999. Only 29 percent of skilled swimmers fall below that income level. In the second phase of the University of Memphis study, researchers looked more closely at income and found that 12 percent of children who participate in a reduced-cost school lunch program—an easier piece of data for a child to report than household income—said they don't even feel comfortable in the shallow end of a pool, compared with just 6 percent of wealthier children.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Carol C. Irwin of the University of Memphis.

Like  Slate and the Explainer on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

The U.S. Is So, So Far Behind Europe on Clean Energy

Even if You Don’t Like Batman, You Might Like Gotham

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

Nobody Knows How Many Gay Married Couples Live in America—Not Even the Census Bureau

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
  Life
Outward
Sept. 22 2014 4:45 PM Why Can’t the Census Count Gay Couples Accurately?
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 22 2014 4:06 PM No, Women’s Soccer Does Not Have a Domestic Violence Problem Or, why it is very, very stupid to compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice.
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 5:45 PM The University of California Corrects “Injustice” by Making Its Rich Chancellors Even Richer
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 22 2014 4:34 PM Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.