Last week Createquity published an analysis looking at why people in lower socioeconomic status (SES) don’t attend arts events. Their research challenges the common assumption that price, lack of time and geographic proximity are the main factors in the decision not to attend, at least among this demographic.
Unfortunately, the real impediment might be deeply instilled cultural behaviors that present a problem in areas beyond the arts.
The piece, Why Don’t They Come? is thought provoking and occasionally surprising. It has started a good deal of conversation both on the Createquity site, and also on economist Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution blog where it dominates the discussion on a post of assorted links.
I say that instilled cultural behavior is an potentially an impediment because overcoming it will take more than programming changes, lower prices/free events and taking events to different neighborhoods.
Createquity’s questioning of the argument that arts are elitist is somewhat depressing as it points out the lack of low SES involvement in even low cost and solitary pursuits.
Data from the survey shows that fewer low-income individuals attend pop and rock concerts than their wealthier counterparts, and significantly fewer of them attend visual arts festivals and craft fairs. In fact, people with lower incomes and less education are less likely to read books, go to the movies, take an arts class, play a musical instrument, sing, dance socially, take or edit photographs, paint, make scrapbooks, engage in creative writing, or make crafts.
Granted, if an effort to change programming, address costs and increase geographic access is made over a long period of time, attitudes may change in the direction arts organizations hope. Even if those measures aren’t effective in influencing low-SES people, the barriers they respond to may be decisive for people in other socioeconomic strata and therefore important for arts organizations to continue to address.
But when it comes to people in low SES, this relationship/outlook is not unique to the arts. Two days after “Why Don’t They Come?” was published, the New York Times had a story about low SES people and food that had many elements in common with the Createquity piece.
The Times story talked about efforts to bring grocery stores to “food deserts,” places where residents didn’t have easy access to high quality food and produce. The idea was that if people didn’t have to walk miles or ride the bus for hours to get to a grocery store, they would make better choices about what they ate. However, it didn’t work out that way. People continued to buy what they were in the habit of eating. (my emphasis)
It turned out that food preferences dominated. When the researchers looked at shoppers with lower levels of income and education living in richer neighborhoods with more accessible healthy food, their shopping mimicked that of low-income, less educated people in poorer neighborhoods. (And the reverse was true, too: Richer, more educated shoppers in poor neighborhoods looked more like rich shoppers in rich neighborhoods.)
“When we put supermarkets in poor neighborhoods, people are buying the same food,” said Barry Popkin, a professor of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina, who participated in an Institute of Medicine review of food desert research in 2009. “They just get it cheaper.”
It’s possible that poverty itself explains a lot of the shopping variation. In general, fresher, healthier food is more expensive to buy than less healthy processed food. It also takes more time and resources to cook, and keeps for fewer days.
If people can’t afford healthier foods, then it would be reasonable to think that just giving them a better store wouldn’t solve their problems. But Ms. Handbury’s paper found that the education of the shoppers was much more predictive than their incomes. Poorer families bought less healthy food than richer ones. But a bigger gap was found between families with and without a college education. Those results, Ms. Handbury said, suggest that improving people’s diets will require both making food accessible and affordable and also changing people’s perceptions and habits about diet and health.
Like the NYT story, Createquity also mentioned that education level is generally a predictor of participation in an arts event. Though the folks at Createquity state that income is also a predictor of arts attendance, they later note that cost is not terribly significant in keeping low-SES people away.
Roughly speaking, this simulates what would happen if every exhibit and performance in existence could be attended for free. The result? Only 7% of the chasm in attendance rates between rich and poor, and between college-educated and not, would be bridged.
Though by now we know that “if you build it/perform it, they will come” is an unwise approach, even removing other barriers in addition to convenience and proximity isn’t enough:
Indeed, according to our model, even if all barriers to participation were removed for low-SES populations and every person who wanted to attend an exhibit or performance in the past year were able to do so, it would still not close even half of the gap in attendance rates.
The authors of “Why Won’t They Come?” acknowledge no one knows why low-SES people make the decisions they do. Among the reasons they suggest are that it could be the group appreciates TV more, it may be a matter of learned behavior, a belief that they are not the type of person who likes the arts or that the general perception that arts are too expensive keeps them from seeking low cost and free opportunities.
The lemonade out of lemons takeaway from this is that it isn’t a problem unique to the arts. Look back at the sentence I bolded earlier- accessibility, affordability, change perceptions – all sentiments familiar in discussions about the arts.
Anyone working on helping low-SES people make better decisions about their lives is a potential ally and partner. (Though the adjuration against defining what is good for people found in Createquity’s post after the art gallery picture is well taken.) A social service organization can help an arts organization gain more direct access to the demographic and an arts organization can help the social service partner structure their training in an engaging manner. Often people in the arts feel like they are going it alone and face challenges no other sector faces, but that is not necessarily so.